September 29, 2022

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Out of this world communications: what sci-fi and tech can teach us

Out of this world communications: what sci-fi and tech can teach us

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I loved Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I avidly watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I love the Star Wars series.

There are two science fiction films that stand out for me as favorites, and it wasn’t until I really started thinking about the one I recently saw that I realized the link between them. The two movies are Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a classic), and Arrival (a new release).

So, what is the main link between these two movies? In both films, working to establish effective lines of communication between humans and aliens is the central theme. For Close Encounters, musical notes are the “common language” deployed to facilitate communication. In Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks breaks down the language barrier by communicating using white boards and actions to establish a dialogue.

Those of us who have ever had to learn a foreign language can relate to these processes on some level—you start out completely mystified, trying to figure out equivalents to the words and phrases you already know. Eventually, you hope, there’s a “light bulb” moment where it starts to click.

Both films also present a secondary, more subtle message: while humans are struggling to communicate with extraterrestrials, they also struggle to communicate with one another—whether they speak the same language or not. In Arrival (minor spoiler alert), a key tension point in the film revolves around the confusion over the word “weapon” when it is used by the aliens—some of the human characters take the word literally, while Banks argues that the word “tool” could easily be what the aliens mean. Examined closely, the context of the word use matters—for example, is a knife a tool or a weapon? It depends, of course, on how it is being used.

As public relations and communications practices become more global and interconnected, the need for cross-cultural understanding will become even greater. Prior Media Bullseye articles have noted the need for language skills and an emphasis on developing cultural understanding. Patience and creativity also will feature prominently as part of a solid range of skill sets for communicators.

Technology will play a role too. As I was starting to outline what I wanted to include in this piece, I came across this piece in Wareable, discussing language translation and wearable technology. The post outlines where several initiatives to develop in-ear translation “hearables”—wearable tech that would allow earbuds to translate languages in near real-time.

While getting human-sounding translation is an ongoing concern—Google Translate is great, but far from perfect—it is remarkable to think of how dramatically a wearable like in-ear translation buds could change human-to-human communications.

The Wareable piece notes that refugee crises and human migration highlight the need for tech like this. There will always be a place for those who are truly bi- and multi-lingual, as fluency is necessary for clear understanding. As noted above, we really don’t want too many weapon/tool arguments or questions out there, as there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. But tech like these ear-bud wearables could open up a great many opportunities for communicators everywhere.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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