Late on a mid-fall elementary school night, I was grabbing some water before bed. Standing by the faucet, I was just about to pour myself a glass when I overheard two men talking about laundry:
Man 1: “You’re gonna over dry it.”
Man 2: “You, you can’t over dry.”
Man 1: “Why not?”
Man 2: “Same as you can’t over wet. You see, once something is wet, it’s wet. Same thing with dead: like once you die you’re dead, right? Let’s say you drop dead and I shoot you: you’re not gonna die again, you’re already dead. You can’t over die, you can’t over dry.”
Somehow, even out of context, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I needed to know more. “Dad,” I whispered, “What’re you watching?”
“It’s Seinfeld,” he called back. “Wanna see?”
That was the beginning of an era for me—one in which my father and I spent almost every weeknight together, sharing laughs in the living room. I was thrilled to be allowed to stay up late to watch this show which, often, went way over my head, to watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus play a curly-haired, brilliant editor (things I wanted to be) who spent her days getting into hijinks with her somehow endearing, yet unequivocally broken friends. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show for me was the constant stream of interpersonal communication missteps around which the plot of each episode is centered. “Everything could be so easy,” I’d think. “If only they’d talk to each other; if only they’d found each other sooner.”
There’s a theory surrounding the plot of Seinfeld that states that almost every problem they have in the show could have been solved if the characters had cell phones. It hasn’t been proven to be completely true, but there are plenty of situations when it is. For those familiar with the show, for example, “The Parking Garage”—an episode where the four main characters get separated looking for their car in a garage at night—presents a problem that could easily have been solved with a quick photo and a text message. Had the show been written 10 years or so later, the cast of Seinfeld would have made it out of the garage in about 15 minutes, and they’d be on their way to another adventure. In short, the argument to take from this is that four smartphones could potentially have solved nine seasons’ worth of communication problems.
Does the Seinfeld cell phone theory apply to the world at large?
Not exactly. But let’s extrapolate for a minute.
Today, around 40 percent of the world is connected to the internet. Most of that 40 percent comprises people living in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, with Africa and Oceania comprising very small portions as well. And with these populations really being the only voices that are making their way across the globe at instant speed, we’ve started to see some amazing things happen. We’ve started to blend languages together, resulting in the development of new technologies and the ability of some to, for the first time, feel understood. Through digital storytelling, we’ve started to share struggles and major injustices across the planet, become more empathetic to them, and work together to address them headfirst. And, through a slew of content that ranges from how-to articles to DIY videos, academic papers found through Google Scholar and the host of people willing to share their knowledge in forums such as Reddit, we’ve got unprecedented access to educational resources we’d never have had 20 years ago. The internet, and the people who use it, are far from perfect—but you have to admit, we’ve made some really positive strides.
Two years ago, Eric Schmidt, who at the time was the Executive Chairman of Google, implied that the entire world would be online by 2020. And, ideally, he’d be correct: after all, the United Nations did declare internet access a basic human right. But unfortunately, according to Tech Radar and The Broadband Commission, “internet use in developing countries is unlikely to achieve the target of 50% until 2020.” To help achieve the full connectivity of unserved and underserved areas, several initiatives have been developed—internet.org, Facebook’s internet drone, Aquila, and the same company’s OpenCellular project, to name just a few.
But what could an entirely wired world look like? In so many ways, the internet has felt like a direct portal among all our brains: a way to communicate with, empathize with, and understand one another. What if our perspectives could be dimensionalized by the addition of stories and voices from countries we’ve never explored or come to know? How could that change and enhance the human experience?
Truthfully, there’s no way of knowing. But in this article, I’d love to weigh the possibilities of a fully connected world, and hypothesize on what might become possible as a result.
I’ve written before on some of the ways in which the internet has affected the English language. But there’s more to be said about the connection between the world’s languages and the way in which we understand each other. In an interview with Gracie Lofthouse for The Atlantic, Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian, put this eloquently:
Learning new words for emotions means you might be able to identify those emotions as they come up in your own experience. And the more emotions you can identify and translate from vague, amorphous things into concrete terms, the easier time you have of it.
Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions features the culturally unique names of emotions that the author collected from around the world. In her interview, she describes some of these words, teaching ways in which identifying new emotions can actually change the way you feel and perceive the world. She talks about words such as “homefulness,” which she defines as “the feeling you get when you turn the corner and know you’re near home,” and the Baining word “awumbuk,” defined as the heaviness you feel when visitors leave your home.
As more people and cultures connect to the internet and communicate—which will only get easier as the world literacy rate continues to rise—they’ll begin sharing their languages as they tell their stories to each other. On a one-to-one basis, that means that both people will begin to live more rounded lives, enlightened by their abilities to grasp and understand their own emotions in greater detail. But looking beyond the individual, this also means they’ll be able to understand each other, and each other’s cultures a bit better, resulting in a more global sense of empathy that can be spread and shared among people. Using the internet as a platform, people will be able to share their struggles and describe their lives, the things that excite and depress them, and the things they hope for. And with that empathy comes the desire to take action.
As ideas spread across the globe, we’ll also be better able to work together to create. Using techniques and customs, we’ll be able to collaborate to build ideas and make major change.
We’ve already seen so many examples of ways in which collaboration and communication can create beautiful things: from online, profit-based project ideas on Kickstarter that people came together to fund and make a reality (think Oculus Rift) to initiatives such as Distributing Dignity, whose rise came about through face-to-face interactions with women at a homeless day center. These are just two amazing project ideas of the many that have been shared and popularized via social networks and the internet. Just think of all the problems we could solve with the rest of there to help us find them.
What’s more, as Sarah Hill, CEO and Chief Storyteller for StoryUP explains, “The internet is no longer flat—it’s morphing into the metaverse.” Through virtual reality tools, we’re finally being able to understand the lives and cultures of people in countries we may never have dreamed of exploring. With near-firsthand exposure to the struggles of a people across the globe, we’ll finally have more of the knowledge we need to come up with world-changing ideas and share them through digital storytelling. And we’ll have the means to work with those people to make those ideas realities.
Despite the complexity of Seinfeld‘s plot lines, it almost goes without saying that our world is infinitely more complicated, more nuanced. We are standing on the edge of a future where we can finally share, converse, edit, collaborate, and learn with (and from) people we’d never have met or known—something no other generation has been able to say before. The possibilities are endless, and the potential for innovation knows no limit.
And while we know smartphones and access to the internet aren’t the one-size-fits-all solutions they may have been for Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George’s many problems, we can say this much: Communication very well could be.