The Associated Press reported recently that students are writing papers and answering essay questions on their test in what Nathan Snow calls IM/Text Speak – a kind of short hand that gives users the ability to maintain rapid, almost continuous intercommunications.

While some educators see this as further evidence of the deterioration of writing skills, many point to the fact that students are actually writing far more than they did just a few years ago and learning to build strong communication skills.  In fact, the entire context of social networking is stretching the boundaries of relationships between students, students and teachers, teachers and teachers, and innovative young professionals.

Cell to cell is the new face to face

Wired Magazine notes in “a study by comScore MediaMetrix, more than 250 million people use instant messaging regularly. And IDC estimates that more than 7 billion instant messages are sent every day.”  To put that into perspective, the population of the US is a little over 300 million.

The spread of computer mediated communications is obviously growing exponentially around the world.  Even more interesting is the introduction of a miniaturized 3D environment by companies like “There.”  They’ve invented a way to let people communicate with each other inside an animated three dimensional space – on their cell phones.

One can easily imagine these three-dimensional environments growing into larger virtual worlds, stretching the potential of cell to cell communications, suggesting an even deeper value for the communications challenges facing the construction industry.

Communication tangled by technology

At the same time, what is particularly interesting is how the real communications potential of simple cell to cell conversations gets tangled up in the marketing mumble jumble of constant upgrades and gigabyte computers.

For example, Edward Tufte writes about what he calls the poverty of content in PowerPoint presentations in his book Beautiful Evidence.  He details how the cut and paste format of this slide show software reduced and masked the underlying dangers of what was represented in a slide show as a relatively minor incident, channeling the misunderstandings that caused the Challenger disaster.


Tufte points out that ideas and real openended discussions are reduced to pretty headings, short bullets, and meaningless statements in an often endless sequence of slides and what he points to as PPPhluff (Power Point Fluff).  This rigid format shuts down any hope of a real conversation and blocks the kind of interaction needed to reach a comprehensive level of understanding.

Good enough communications

The September 2009 issue of Wired Magazine did an article entitled “the good enuf rvlutn”(sic).  The article pointed to a growing trend in technology – simplification and downsizing.  As software developers and marketing machines churn through endless upgrades and more and more expensive features in bigger and better incomprehensible PPPluff, it’s the simple things that are coming to be the most effective communicators.

For example, hi-def plasma screens compete directly with tiny portable video iPod movies, multi-gig laptops look more and more like dinosaurs next to little light weight $300 netbooks, and simple straightforward web pages like Google, Craigslist, and even eBay, deliver new markets and new information strategies with none of the flash and flicker that only blurs the underlying message.

This good enough approach is one that cuts to the heart of the underlying value of a technical tool for the construction industry.  Take a look at what Mitchel Stangl of Stangl Associates in Amherst MA has been doing with an older version of Google SketchUp Layout.  He is clearly reinventing 2D/3D graphic communication with an intuitive approach to construction documentation.  His work breaks free of the boundaries of much more complicated programs to return to the essence of what it means to simply explain how his designs are to be constructed.

Stangl-11 Stangl-12

Do we hide behind our technology?

This explosion in direct communications technology is even more amazing when one looks at high-end graphical work stations running gigabytes of software that cost thousands of dollars to buy and take months and months to master.  Only to face regular and inevitable retooling and retraining for the next generation upgrade when even bigger pieces of hardware hit the full color pages of marketing media.

Comparing the incredible complexity of 3D software like AutoCAD to simple intuitive programs like Google SketchUp is a real eye opener.  One program takes months to master and is impossible to use by everyone except the very determined (and highly paid..;-).  The other program takes only minutes of playing to learn and even children can almost immediately begin to apply the communicative potential of 3D to their ideas and imaginations.

This simple good enough program has now become the starting point for many professional design and construction proposals because it clearly and simply communicates — in 3D.  And it’s free.

Perhaps it’s time to step back from the overwhelming hype and the growing piles of computer generated PPPluff and look at construction communications for what it is and what it always has been, a simple face to face, eye to eye, person to person, voice to voice, exchange of information.  And nothing more.