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Evolution and Media Naturalness: a Look at E-Communication Through a Darwinian Theoretical Lens

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EVOLUTION AND MEDIA NATURALNESS:
A LOOK AT E-COMMUNICATION THROUGH
A DARWINIAN THEORETICAL LENS
Ned Kock
Lehigh University/Temple University
Bethlehem, PA/Philadelphia, PA USA nfk2@Lehigh.edu Abstract
Modern theories of human evolution converge on the belief that our brain has been designed to cope with problems that occurred intermittently in our evolutionary past. Evidence suggests that, during over 99 percent of the evolutionary process leading to the emergence of our species, our ancestors communicated in a synchronous and colocated manner, and employing facial expressions, body language, and oral speech (what we refer to here, generally, as “face-to-face” communication). Thus, it is plausible to assume that many of the evolutionary adaptations our brain has undergone in connection with communication have been directed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of face-to-face communication, which begs the question: What happens when we selectively suppress face-to-face communication elements (e.g., colocation, the ability to employ/observe facial expressions) through e-communication technologies? This paper tries to provide an answer to this question by developing a hypothesis, called the media naturalness hypothesis, which builds on modern human evolution theory. The media naturalness hypothesis argues that, other things being equal, a decrease in the degree of naturalness of a communication medium (or its degree of similarity to the face-to-face medium) leads to the following effects in connection with a communication interaction: (1) increased cognitive effort, (2) increased communication ambiguity, and (3) decreased physiological arousal. It is argued that the media naturalness hypothesis has important implications for the selection, use, and deployment of e-communication tools in organizations, particularly in the context of business-to-consumer interactions.
Keywords: Electronic communication, computer-mediated communication, communication media, naturalness, evolution theory

1 INTRODUCTION
Empirical research on electronic communication (e-communication) behavior has been taking place since the 1970s, leading to the build up of a large body of evidence, which several researchers have tried to summarize through theories. These theories (for comprehensive reviews, see Carlson and Davis 1998; Te’eni 2001) have emphasized the role that several factors have on behavior toward e-communication tools, notably: communication medium (e.g., degree of nonverbal cues available), collaborative task
(e.g., level of equivocality and complexity), social environment (e.g., level of peer pressure for or against the use of a particular e-communication tool), and learned information processing schemas (e.g., degree of skill in connection with the use of a certain e-communication tool).
Surprisingly, though, virtually no e-communication theory looked at the role that biology or, more specifically, our biological communication apparatus, may have on behavior toward e-communication tools. The goal of this paper is to try to fill this gap by looking at how we evolved our biological communication apparatus, which seems to be designed primarily for face-to-face communication (i.e., synchronous and colocated communication employing facial expressions, body language, and oral speech), and providing a theory-based discussion of what should happen when we selectively suppress face-to-face communication elements (e.g., colocation, the ability to employ facial expressions, etc.) through e-communication technologies. Our discussion
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involves the development of a new theoretical hypothesis, referred to here as the media naturalness hypothesis, which argues that, other things being equal, a decrease in the degree of naturalness of a communication medium (or its degree of similarity to the face-to-face medium) leads to the following effects in connection with a communication interaction: (1) increased cognitive effort, (2) increased communication ambiguity, and (3) decreased physiological arousal. We also discuss important implications for the selection, use, and deployment of e-communication tools in organizations, particularly in the context of business-toconsumer interactions.

2 HOMO SAPIENS EVOLUTION AND MEDIA NATURALNESS
All living species, including the human species, evolved through natural selection, a process in which random mutations are introduced in the genetic makeup of offspring, leading to traits that are selected based on their usefulness for survival and mating
(Darwin, 1859; Mayr and Provine 1998). Genetic mutations that enhance the chances of survival and mating, in many cases only slightly (Dobzhansky 1971), slowly accumulate and spread through the members of a species, leading to the development of species-wide physical, behavioral, and cognitive traits over long periods of time.
Virtually all evidence in connection with human evolution suggests that during over 99 percent of our evolutionary cycle we relied on colocated and synchronous forms of communication employing facial expressions, body language, and sounds (including speech, which uses a large variety of sound combinations) to exchange information and knowledge among ourselves (Boaz and
Almquist 1997; Pinker 1994, 1997).
The evolutionary biology principle of “repeated use” argues that there is a correlation between the degree of evolutionary optimization of a particular set of organs used to perform a certain task by a species and the number of generations (or, generally speaking, the amount of time) in which those organs are repeatedly used to accomplish the task (Mayr 1976; Mayr and Provine
1998; Wilson 2000). Thus, it is plausible to conclude that, since our biological communication apparatus has been used for colocated and synchronous communication using facial expressions, body language, and sounds over such a long period of time, then it should have been designed for communication interaction modes that present those characteristics.
The above conclusion would be supported by the presence of adaptations specifically designed for face-to-face communication in our biological communication apparatus; and there seem to be several of them. For example, humans have a complex web of facial muscles (22 on each side of the face; more than any other animal) that allow them to generate over 6,000 communicative expressions; very few of these muscles are used for other purposes, such as chewing (Bates and Cleese 2001; McNeill 1998).
Also, evidence in connection with human evolution points at a noticeable evolutionary direction toward the development of a biological communication apparatus that supported ever more sophisticated forms of speech, or increased communication complexity, culminating in the development of complex speech by Homo sapiens. The advent of complex speech was enabled by the development of a larynx located relatively low in the neck and an enlarged vocal tract—key morphological traits that differentiate modern humans from their early ancestors and that allow modern humans to generate the large variety of sounds required to speak most modern languages (Laitman 1984, 1993; Lieberman 1998). The morphology of the human ear also suggests a specialized design to decode speech (Lieberman 1998; Pinker 1994).
Optimal biological design rarely occurs in nature because evolution is a very slow process that takes time to catch up with environmental change. As a result, changes in the environment often make previous biological designs suboptimal. A good example is our strong species-wide desire for fat, which was adaptive in a past environment of scarce food resources, but now leads to clogged arteries and heart attacks (Buss 1999). The conclusion that biological designs are often suboptimal is a general one; of which the main hypothesis proposed in this paper (i.e., the media naturalness hypothesis) can be seen as a corollary.
Essentially, what is argued here is that modern humans are not optimally designed for current e-communication technologies because these technologies often suppress too many of the elements found in face-to-face communication.

3 MEDIA NATURALNESS AND COMMUNICATION ATTRIBUTES
Since there is strong evidence that human beings have been “engineered” by evolutionary forces to communicate primarily in a colocated and synchronous manner, as well as through facial expressions, body language, and speech, it is reasonable to assume that natural communication involves at least five key elements: (1) a high degree of colocation, which would allow the individuals engaged in a communication interaction to see and hear each other; (2) a high degree of synchronicity, which would allow the individuals engaged in a communication interaction to quickly exchange communicative stimuli; (3) the ability to convey and observe facial expressions; (4) the ability to convey and observe body language; and (5) the ability to convey and listen to speech.
Given this, we can define the naturalness of the communication medium created by an e-communication technology based on
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the degree to which the technology selectively incorporates (or suppresses) those five elements. That is, it can be stated that, other things being equal, the degree of incorporation of one of the media naturalness elements correlates the degree of naturalness of an e-communication medium.
With the main independent construct of the media naturalness hypothesis defined (i.e., communication media naturalness), we can now focus on the identification of key dependent constructs that are relevant from a business perspective. This is done here as a first step, since identifying a comprehensive set of dependent constructs that are directly affected by media naturalness would require extensive empirical research, and is suggested here as future research. The dependent constructs discussed here are cognitive effort, communication ambiguity, and physiological arousal.

3.1 Cognitive Effort
There is a large body of evidence pointing at our ability to employ the media naturalness elements rather effortlessly in communication interactions. For example, it has been shown that human beings possess specialized brain circuits that are designed for the recognition of faces and the generation and recognition of facial expressions (Bates and Cleese 2001; Le Grand et al. 2001;
McNeill 1998), which artificial intelligence research suggests require complex computations that are difficult to replicate even in powerful computers (Kurzweil 1999; Russel and Norvig 1995). The same situation is found in connection with speech generation and recognition (Kurzweil 1999; Lieberman 1991, 2000; Russel and Norvig 1995).
Since our brain’s circuitry has been designed by evolution to excel in communication employing the five media naturalness elements discussed above, one can reasonably conclude that selectively suppressing those elements in communication media will require the development and use of specialized brain circuits to make up for the absence of those elements and enable effective communication. Those brain circuits are not hardwired into our brain but learned over time, primarily through changes in the brain’s neocortex, its outer layer, where most learned circuits are concentrated. Lieberman (1991, 1998, 2000) has shown that, as far as human communication is concerned, learned circuits are unlikely to be as efficient as the hardwired circuits endowed on us by evolution, the former usually relying on more convoluted paths than the latter (Pinker and Bloom 1992). Thus, it is plausible to conclude that since the use of more convoluted paths requires increased neural activity, decreases in media naturalness will generally lead to increased mental effort, or what we refer here to as cognitive effort, in connection with communication interactions. Cognitive effort is defined here as the amount of “mental activity” or, from a biological perspective, the “amount of brain activity” involved in a communication interaction. It can be assessed directly, with the use of techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging. Cognitive effort can also be assessed indirectly, based on perceptions of levels of difficulty associated with communicative tasks (Schacter 2001; Todd and Benbasat 1999), as well as through indirect measures such as that of “fluency,” proposed by Kock (1998). The fluency measure builds on the assumption, previously made in many empirical studies (see, for example, Leganchuk et al. 1998), that the amount of cognitive effort associated with an intellective task correlates with the amount of time required to complete the task. As such, fluency is defined as the amount of time taken to convey a certain number of words through different communication media, which is assumed to correlate (and serve as a surrogate measure of) the amount of time taken to convey a certain number of ideas through different media (Kock 1998).
Empirical studies conducted by Kock (1998, 1999) of process improvement groups interacting through different communication media are particularly aligned with the notion that a decrease in media naturalness will generally lead to an increase in cognitive effort. Those studies showed that fluency is, on average, 18 times higher face-to-face than over e-mail in complex group tasks.
Even in the case of proficient typists, who can usually type half as fast as they can speak or faster, Kock’s (2001a) research suggests fluency in complex collaborative tasks conducted face-to-face to be about 10 times higher than over e-mail, regardless of other factors such as cultural background and familiarity with collaborators. According to this estimate, if exchanging 600 words face-to-face required about 6 minutes, exchanging the same number of words over e-mail would take approximately 1 hour
(these figures are close to those found in Kock’s [2001a] studies).

3.2 Communication Ambiguity
Individuals brought up in different cultural environments usually possess different information processing schemas that they have learned over their lifetimes. Different schemas make individuals interpret information in different ways, particularly when information is subconsciously expected but not actually provided. Bartlett (1932) has unequivocally demonstrated this phenomenon, perhaps for the first time, in his famous experiments involving the American Indian folk tale “The War of the
Ghosts.” Essentially, the experiments showed that subjects who held different information processing schemas would interpret
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the tale, which was filled with strange gaps and bizarre causal sequences, in substantially different ways. In Bartlett’s experiments, individuals were subconsciously expecting certain pieces of information to be provided to them. When they did not get the information that they were expecting, they involuntarily “filled in the gaps” based on their existing information processing schemas and the information that they were given (see also Gardner 1985). This led to significant differences in the way different individuals interpreted the tale.
The human brain has a series of hardwired information processing schemas that are designed to solve problems that have occurred intermittently during the millions of years that led to the evolution of the human species (Cosmides and Tooby 1992; Tooby and
Cosmides 1992). Several of these problems addressed by evolutionary adaptations are related to the communication process
(Pinker and Bloom 1992). Our hardwired schemas involved in the communication process make us involuntarily search for stimuli that will enable us to obtain enough information to effectively interpret the message being communicated, and several of the stimuli we automatically search for are those present in actual face-to-face communication (Lieberman 2000), such as contextual cues (available in colocated communication), immediate feedback (available in synchronous communication) in the form of facial expressions and body language, and voice intonations. When several of these stimuli are not present, by being selectively suppressed by e-communication technologies, individuals fill in the gaps much like the subjects in Bartlett’s experiments.
The problem is that, in the absence of information-giving stimuli, filling in the gaps is likely to lead to a higher proportion of misinterpretations, and thus ambiguity, than if the stimuli were not suppressed—as Bartlett’s and other studies (see, for example
Gardner 1985; Pinker 1997) show. While different individuals are likely to look for the same types of communicative stimuli, their interpretation of the message being communicated in the absence of those stimuli will be largely based on their learned schemas, which are likely to differ from those held by other individuals (no two individuals, not even identical twins raised together, go through the same experiences during their lives). That is, a decrease in medium naturalness, caused by the selective suppression of media naturalness elements in a communication medium, is likely to lead to an increase in the probability of misinterpretations of communicative cues, and thus an increase in communication ambiguity.
The above conclusion is consistent with the empirical observation that certain feedback comments, especially those involving constructive criticism, which are often used effectively in face-to-face interaction together with other nonverbal cues that “soften” their tone, are interpreted in different (and often negative) ways when provided via e-mail in business-related discussions— sometimes as very critical and blunt, sometimes as implying indifference (Kock 1999). The conclusion above is also well aligned with the consistent empirical finding that e-communication in general is more “ambiguous” than face-to-face communication
(Carlson and Zmud 1999; Graetz et al. 1998; Kock 1998, 2001a; Rheingold 1993; Walther 1996). While there are studies that show that individuals can voluntarily or involuntarily compensate for this increase in communication ambiguity by means of constructing better thought out messages (Kock 1998, 2001b), and by becoming familiar with the medium and their partners
(Carlson and Zmud 1999; Walther 1996), to the best of our knowledge there have been no studies suggesting that the suppression of media naturalness elements per se causes a reduction in communication ambiguity (i.e., the opposite effect to what we hypothesize here). That is, even though there is evidence suggesting that the effects of greater communication ambiguity can be moderated by compensatory adaptation behavior, the evidence suggesting that lower communication media naturalness leads to greater communication ambiguity is beyond much doubt.

3.3 Physiological Arousal
To say that our genes influence the formation of a “phenotypic trait” (i.e., a biological trait that defines a morphological, behavioral, physiological, etc., characteristic) does not mean the same as saying that the trait in question is “innate.” In fact, very few phenotypic traits are innate (e.g., blood type); the vast majority, including most of those in connection with our biological communication apparatus, need interaction with the environment to be fully and properly developed. For example, the human eye is a complex organ that was designed by evolutionary forces over millions of years (Dawkins 1986, 1989). Like many other organs, the complex set of genes that guides the development of the human eye assumes the presence of certain environmental circumstances, which were likely present in our prehistoric past during most of our evolutionary history. For example, it has been shown that if the eye is not properly stimulated with light in the first years of life, it will not develop properly, in some cases leading to severe eyesight problems and even blindness (Dawkins 1986).
The above is also true for the human biological communication apparatus. While there is substantial evidence suggesting that our biological communication apparatus is designed for face-to-face communication, there is also ample evidence that such apparatus
(including the neural functional language system) cannot be fully developed without a significant amount of practice (Pinker
1994). There is little doubt that a fully developed biological communication apparatus has been particularly important in terms
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of survival and mating for our prehistoric ancestors, as it is for us today (Boaz and Almquist 1997; Dunbar 1993; Miller 2000).
Thus, evolution must have developed mechanisms to compel human beings to practice the use of their biological communication apparatus, mechanisms that are similar to those compelling animals to practice those skills that play a key role in connection with survival and mating (Lorenz 1970; Wilson 2000). Among these mechanisms, one of the most important is that of physiological arousal, which is often associated with “excitement” and “pleasure” (Boaz and Almquist 1997; Miller 2000).
It is a plausible conclusion from the above discussion that engaging in communication interactions, particularly in face-to-face situations, is likely to trigger physiological arousal in human beings. This conclusion underlies the theoretical hypothesis that modern humans possess what Pinker (1994) refers to as a “language instinct,” and can be taken further through the associated conclusion that each face-to-face communication element (e.g., the use of facial expressions to convey thoughts and feelings) contributes to physiological arousal. Indeed, there is evidence that face-to-face communication elements such as certain types of facial expressions, oral utterances, and body language expressions, even when used in isolation, evoke physiological arousal in human beings (Bates and Cleese 2001; McNeill 1998; Zimmer 2001). Thus, it would be reasonable to also conclude that communication interactions in which certain elements of “natural” face-to-face communication are suppressed (e.g., the ability to employ/see facial expressions) involve a corresponding suppression of physiological arousal, and, in turn, a consequent decrease in the perceived excitement in connection with the communication interaction. In other words, suppression of media naturalness elements is likely to make communication interactions “duller” than if those elements were present.
Obviously, as with other conclusions put forth in this paper, the above conclusion assumes other things being equal. For instance, the topic of a communication interaction and the identity of the other person are factors that may influence physiological arousal more strongly than the communication medium itself, which is a point that is not disputed here and is perfectly compatible with the hypothesis put forth in this paper. Having said that, it is interesting to point out that the above conclusion is consistent with and provides a plausible explanation for the ample evidence suggesting that, other things being equal, e-communication systems users consistently perceive computer-mediated communication in general as less exciting, duller, or less emotionally fulfilling than face-to-face communication (Ellis et al. 1991; Kiesler et al. 1988; Kock 1999; Markus 1994; Reinig et al. 1995; Sproull and
Kiesler 1986; Walther 1996).

3.4 The Media Naturalness Hypothesis
Now that the three main dependent constructs of cognitive effort, communication ambiguity, and physiological arousal have been identified and defined, we can formally enunciate the media naturalness hypothesis. The hypothesis assumes that the face-to-face medium is the most natural medium of all.
Other things being equal, a decrease in the degree of naturalness of a communication medium leads to the following effects in connection with a communication interaction: (1) an increase in cognitive effort, (2) an increase in communication ambiguity, and (3) a decrease in physiological arousal.
Based on the above discussion, two assumptions can be made that are useful for managers who need to decide which features to have on their e-communication systems in the face of limited resources. The first assumption is that, other things being equal, an e-communication medium that incorporates one of the media naturalness elements—i.e., colocation, synchronicity, and the ability to convey facial expressions, body language, and speech—will have a higher degree of naturalness than another ecommunication medium that does not incorporate that element. The second assumption is that, other things being equal, an ecommunication medium that incorporates one of the five media naturalness elements to a larger degree than another ecommunication medium will have the highest degree of naturalness of the two e-communication media, full incorporation being one in which the element is identical to what would be available in the face-to-face medium.

4 DISCUSSION
Those readers who are familiar with the media richness hypothesis proposed by Daft and Lengel (1986) might want to see a discussion contrasting it with the media naturalness hypothesis. It is proposed here that the degree of naturalness of a communication medium can be assessed based on the degree to which it incorporates five key elements of face-to-face communication, drawn from our previous discussion on the evolution of human communication. These five elements are:
(1) colocation, which would allow individuals engaged in a communication interaction to share the same context, as well as see
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and hear each other; (2) synchronicity, which would allow the individuals to quickly exchange communicative stimuli; (3) the ability to convey and observe facial expressions; (4) the ability to convey and observe body language; and (5) the ability to convey and listen to speech. While this conceptualization may appear to be similar to that proposed by media richness theory (Daft and
Lengel 1986; Daft et al. 1987), three major differences exist.
The first difference refers to the main dependent constructs addressed by each theoretical framework. In media richness theory, the two main dependent constructs are media choice and collaborative task outcome quality. Media richness theory argues that effective managers choose communication media of appropriate richness to perform collaborative tasks; if those managers are forced to use media different than their choice, media richness theory predicts that the task outcome quality would decrease accordingly. In the framework proposed here, the main constructs are cognitive effort, communication ambiguity, and physiological arousal. Not only are these constructs substantially different than those proposed by media richness theory, but they also allow for completely different conclusions. One such conclusion is that proposed by Kock’s (1998, 2001b) compensatory adaptation model, which is that in the presence of certain social influences (see Fulk et al. 1990), individuals can overcompensate for the lack of naturalness of a given communication medium and thus achieve better quality outcomes than if they had used media of higher naturalness.
The second difference refers to a second level categorization of the naturalness elements, which arguably provides the basis for a more refined understanding of media naturalness than would be possible based on media richness theory (a point that is demonstrated in the following paragraph). This second level categorization is centered on two main dimensions: (1) the spacetime dimension, which comprises the degree to which a medium supports (a) colocation and (b) synchronicity; and (2) the expressive-perceptual dimension, which comprises the degree of support for the use of (c) facial expressions, (d) body language, and (e) speech. These two dimensions are fundamentally different from each other when looked at through an evolutionary lens.
The third difference is related to the second, and builds on the notion of evolutionary cost of adaptations in connection with specific processes (Wilson 2000) and a related conjecture, which is that those adaptations that present a higher cost (in terms of survival) are likely to be relatively more important for the specific process for which they have been designed than other, lower cost adaptations. The evolutionary cost conjecture allows us to predict that one of the elements of the expressive-perceptual dimension, namely the ability of a medium to support the use of speech, is likely to be significantly more important than the other two (within the same expressive-perceptual dimension) in defining the naturalness of a communication medium, and thus enabling an effective communication process. The evolutionary cost notion can be seen as a broad conceptual generalization of Zahavi and
Zahavi’s (1997) handicap principle, but should not be confused with that principle. Zahavi and Zahavi argue that for animal
“signals” to be “honest” indications of fitness they must impose a cost, or handicap, on the signaler. The more costly a fitness indicator is, the higher is its reliability, and thus the greater is its relative importance as a fitness indicator when compared to other indicators. For example, a set of large and symmetrical antlers (developed by an elk species so that males can signal good health to potential mates) would be more important for procreation than a less costly fitness indicator, such as the color of the hair around the elk’s neck. Therefore, as far as the procreation “process” is concerned, losing its antlers (a suppression of the ability to use a more costly fitness indicator) would be more likely to relegate a male elk to bachelorhood than having its neck shaved (a suppression of the use of a less costly fitness indicator).
The evolutionary cost conjecture is analogous to what was proposed by Zahavi and Zahavi, in that it suggests that “what is costly to evolve” is also “costly not to use,” so to speak. The implication in connection with human communication is that the ability to convey and listen to speech through a communication medium is likely to have a higher relative importance than the other elements in the expressive-perceptive dimension, because of its arguably higher evolutionary cost to human beings. As mentioned before, the development of a larynx located relatively low in the neck, a key difference between human beings and their early ancestors as well as modern apes (Laitman 1993; Lieberman 1998), considerably increased the variety of sounds that modern humans could generate, and thus allowed our species to develop complex speech (a landmark in the evolution of the human species). However, it also significantly increased our chances of choking on ingested food and liquids. Neither of the other naturalness elements in the expressive-perceptual dimension involves the same level of evolutionary costs.
The above discussion would suggest that the suppression of the ability to convey and listen to speech would substantially affect the naturalness of a medium, more than the suppression of the ability to use facial expressions and body language, which should in turn be observed in the dependent variables in the hypothesis proposed here. This is interesting from a computer interface design perspective, because it begs the question as to whether video-conferencing (or a similar technology, such as teleconferencing, which employs video “together” with audio) is much “better” than audio-conferencing alone in terms of cognitive effort required, particularly given the substantial technical difficulties and costs associated with adding a video component to an audio-only channel. According to the evolutionary cost conjecture, it should not be—an expectation that has been
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supported in the past by empirical research (Galegher and Kraut 1990). Nor should face-to-face interaction be much better than video-conferencing (or teleconferencing and similar forms of interaction), as long as the audio channel is of good enough quality.
At least one study (Graetz et al. 1998) comparing face-to-face, teleconferencing, and electronic chat groups, provides strong support for this conclusion.
The notion of evolutionary cost does not seem to apply to the elements of the space-time dimension, a conclusion that should be accompanied by some caveats, as follows. Colocation and synchronicity were an integral part of life for prehistoric humans, as well as many other mammals, because prehistoric humans had no means by which to communicate in a non-colocated and asynchronous manner until the emergence of writing. Most mainstream human evolution theorists would likely argue that writing is too recent a development to have influenced the formation of our biological communication apparatus in any way that could be seen as significant, a point that may be questioned by proponents of more recent gene-culture feedback theories of human evolution (see, e.g., Caporael 2001). Moreover, the emergence of writing generally coincided with an increasing control of the environment, and a corresponding reduction in mortality rates, which both reduced substantially the rate of evolutionary change in our species as a whole, at least from a natural selection perspective, which is the main perspective adopted in this paper (see
Miller [2000] for a modern discussion of “sexual selection theory,” which is often referred to as Darwin’s [1971] “other theory,” and which provides a different perspective).

5 CONCLUSION
It is important to stress that e-communication tools exist for a reason, which is that they solve key communication problems that exist today (and that did not exist in our prehistoric past). For example, communication through e-mail, with all its limitations, can take place regardless of time and physical location—that is, it can take place in an asynchronous and distributed manner—making it a convenient alternative to face-to-face communication in a variety of business situations. Moreover, e-mail, with all its limitations, generates a record, and thus can be reprocessed by its recipient as many times as needed (as long as proper filing takes place), something that is not possible with face-to-face communication. Therefore, the argument put forth in this paper should not be interpreted as a call for the use of face-to-face communication only in business, but as an alternative explanation as to why we should make e-communication media as face-to-face-like as possible, while at the same time preserving the advantages that led to the widespread use of communication systems such as e-mail.
The media naturalness hypothesis leads to predictions that are particularly relevant for communicative tasks brought about by the advent of e-business. The hypothesis leads to the prediction that cognitive effort and communication ambiguity should increase, and physiological arousal decrease, with decreases in e-communication media naturalness. And, in business-to-consumer interactions conducted online, increased cognitive effort and communication ambiguity, and (possibly) decreased physiological arousal (especially in entertainment-related interactions), may lead to lower perceived quality and dissatisfaction on the part of customers. Since the Internet makes it much easier for customers to change suppliers, who are literally “a few clicks away,” the use of e-communication media of lower naturalness than those provided by the competition can have negative consequences for companies that rely heavily on online interactions with their customers to increase or maintain their revenues. This conclusion is aligned with, and partially explains, the constant calls in the popular business literature for the use of more natural forms of online communications between business and consumers (Metz 2000; Mottl 2000; Wasserman 2001). That is, even though a decrease in communication medium naturalness may not have a negative effect on task outcome quality, because of the ability of human beings to compensate for the obstacles posed by unnatural media (Kock 1998, 2001b), it will lead to other problems in certain situations (e.g., online business-to-consumer interactions).
The media naturalness hypothesis provides the basis on which managers with limited resources can decide how to maximize the naturalness of their companies’ online communications with their customers. One area in which these decisions have to be made in many businesses, regardless of type and size, is that of online customer support, where customer support representatives interact with customers electronically. The widespread availability of generic video players and instant-messaging technologies allows for the selective incorporation of synchronicity and the ability to convey speech and facial expressions to these Internet-based interactions, which according to the media naturalness hypothesis is likely to lead to a decrease in the amount of cognitive effort and communication ambiguity in connection with communication interactions where customers are seeking support. This is likely to contribute to an increase in perceive customer service quality. An expected consequence of increased perceived customer service quality is maintenance of or increase in market share. This conclusion is consistent with studies of the impact that customer service quality has on the bottom-line of companies in the financial services sector (Macdonald 1995; Walkins 1992), a sector that today relies heavily on e-communication tools to provide customer support through the Internet.

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The media naturalness hypothesis also provides the basis on which managers, as well as venture capitalists, can predict the likely evolution of e-communication technologies and thus better target their investments in those types of technologies. It can be concluded, based on this paper, that this evolution will be toward e-communication tools that achieve the maximum naturalness at the lowest cost possible. Although this may not be obvious at first glance, e-mail is an example of this, because e-mail is more natural (e.g., it provides a higher degree of synchronicity) and arguably less costly today than paper-based mail, for which it was meant to be a replacement (Keen 1994). This conclusion also explains the relative commercial success of sophisticated text-based chat tools that add synchronicity to online business-to-consumer interactions, making it easier and more exciting for customers to obtain information about products and services, and, at the same time, reduce costs by allowing one customer support representative or salesperson to interact with multiple customers at one time (Eichler and Halperin 2000; Gilbert 1999). It also explains the relative commercial success of virtual news anchors such as “Ananova” (Cracknell 2000; Orubeondo 2000), whose cost is a fraction of their human counterparts’, since many Internet users seem to prefer to listen to news online while looking at a virtual newscaster rather than the arguably more cognitively demanding and less exciting option of reading them on a Web page.

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