Sunday, October 05, 2008

Txtme l8tr

"You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
Knock as you please, there's nobody at home." -- Alexander Pope

"All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone." -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lotos Eaters."
People speak idly of the importance of the computer. The computer, they say, has changed our lives, and they are correct. The computer has changed our daily lives profoundly. Imagine how frequently one interacts with a computer without knowing it. The obvious computers are in our mental inventories of daily life, but there are dozens a day that are hidden inside cars, cash registers, inventory systems, telephones, televisions, radios, stereos, security tags, and toys. Most of these computers do in a smaller or faster form what had already been done by other technology before them.

It's amazing to me that folks don't automatically grasp the unmistakable and unshakable truth of Marshal McLuhan's thesis on technology. If you don't have it in your mental hands, then click that link and read. The store dick's eyes are replaced by the security tag, but the function is the same. The car has a chip that does what the garage's gauges and meters did, and those did what the eyes and ears formerly did. The chip makes the doggie toy articulate in a way that is less expensive and more reliable than the clockwork did.

The obvious computers are another matter. These do "new" things (well, somewhat), but not because of what they achieve. The obvious computer -- the one you are sitting before right now -- lets you read my essay. Reading an essay is something you could have done with the old analog magazine. Afterwards, you may flip through the stacks of other magazines and call it the web, or you may use e-mail and replicate mail and the telephone. If not, you might decide to play a game, but the game is going to be, at its most revolutionary, a replication of Dungeons and Dragons or some other pen and paper extension of imaginary play.

". . . the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions. . . . " -- Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub
What's interesting about the obvious computer is the way it does things. It is the technology itself that is the change, not the destination or action of the technology. The screen, the mouse, the keyboard, the speakers, the track ball, the super-duper extenso-glove... these are the things that are different. Even though each of these is as clearly as it can be an imitation of the body, each is distinctly a layer of intervention and reorganization. These things change the human brain and the neurology of communication. People fret about how these things are goinig to affect children, and they should be worrying as much about how these things have already affected each of us in the Computer Age.

All the worry is misplaced. You want to worry? Worry about the cell phone. The cell phone is both more ubiquitous and more dangerous than the computer, when it comes to reprogramming the human animal. Steve Jobs can show his two-year old playing with an Apple and figuring it out, and that youngster can grow up to be cognitively secure, but what about the cell phone?

The telephone doesn't mean anything to me, much. It's fine. Bell is good. However, the cell phone says that you are always at home. It says that you must always be home. It interrupts anything, and thereby it creates a new foreground activity. Instead of being the object that you use when you want to reach out to someone else, its constant presence and constantly-on status means that the cell phone is your job, and your job is an interruption. Because it might go off at any moment, it is always, in your brain, ahead of any activity you are engaged in.

That cell phone is not an extension. It inverts McLuhan's paradigm, because you are its extension.

Am I exaggerating? Well, think about the text message. "Texting" is now not only a greater addiction than Keno, but it's more of an infection than the Spanish flu. We know that a train driver killed twenty-five people because he was texting, but he is only famous, not unique. Ok, so people have done the Cassandra act about texting while driving, and now Cassandra's keening has been ignored by the at risk, but let's be serious about it. I have not only been tailgated by teen drivers in SUV's, but I have been tailgated by brain damaged teens who were composing text messages and reading them. Look in the rear view mirror. See the hands perched on top of the wheel? Hit the gas as hard as you can and try to put miles between you and it, or make the next turn and wait for ten minutes. It won't help, of course, because the next driver behind you will be doing the same thing.

I worry about my safety, of course, and I worry a bit about the cancer risks, but what I really, really worry about is the brain inside that benumbed skull back there. Think about what the text message does.

I can testify in court about its effects on language. i can say tht u are rly messed up by it. I have seen students actually hand in for a grade papers with "u" in them. I'm through with seeing "thru." These shortcuts are not orthographic reform, and they are not a "new language." While the "emoticon" has some claim to being a linguistic feature, "LOL" and "ROFLMAO" and the like have become nervous ticks, not communication.

More, though, I am concerned about this metacommunity that is in the foreground. It is an actual hivemind without any thinking being done. The text message is hostile to thought. One cannot actually work out a full proposition in a format that only allows a few pricey characters, and one cannot have intellectual precision in a medium that punishes vocabulary. As Americans have reduced their working vocabularies to a mere ten thousand words, the text message reduces that further. Hence, what the constant text does is not enable a constantly communicating mentality, but a constantly "in touch" community.

When my dog was a puppy, she used to lie in bed beside me. Dogs do not like body-to-body contact the way that humans do, but they do have to touch, and my dog would sleep next to me with a toe nail touching my leg. She had to have contact, but no big mushy hug. That's what the cell phone has done. It has sacrificed, if not obliterated, communication, and it has enforced a constant touch. It is somehow fetal, somehow regressive, and it is, I think, addictive precisely because it allows for an undifferentiated ego.

I'm sorry that I've gone so long on this. I'm bored, so ttyl.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. The topic begs your further attention.

The Geogre said...

I think there is at least one new observation in the above. The cell phone is ahead of everything else. It's like carrying TNT in your pocket. It might not go off, but the chance that it will means that it occupies some mental territory and cannot be moved. The fact that it cannot be moved it proven by people who forget their cell phones and "feel naked" and feel "uncomfortable" or "stranded." They don't feel that without an actual loss.

At the same time, what on earth does the cell phone give, and how does it give it? If we understand that, we can get to what it's doing to its acolytes. I may have to return here again later, but I've got more thinking to do.

Outriggr said...

(You have a new readr!)

Yes, perhaps the cell phone is the first common technology that, neurologically, can occupy the position of a sense organ. If the brain can have a phantom limb - a conscious impression of an organ that is no longer there - then it can likely re-organize its neurons to interact with something that it deems equivalent to a sense organ. The cell phone is equivalent in an important analogical sense, and the "sufficiently important to the brain" hurdle occurs ... just in the way you've tried to explain above. With most other technologies, this hasn't happened simply (really - simply) because they don't follow us around. The ones we do carry, like a pocket watch, are not analogous to senses. Nor do we become addicted to looking at our watches.

As the number of ways that we can interact with a "cell phone" increases, the more sensory-analogy and important-to-brain we get. This helps me understand the texting thing, which has been a black hole.

So the cell phone is the first societal occurrence of that speculative field related to [[Brain-computer interface]] that I'm sure has a catchy name but I can't think of now... and we haven't realized it yet.

Anonymous said...

I love how you ended with ttyl. In theory texting affords an opportunity to become "bilingual" (though I wouldn't put texting on my resumé). It is a "language" with unique spellings that borrows heavily, well, exclusively from another language.

The problem that occurs, however, is not much different from that of any multilingual speaker. One language spills over into another, whether that be inadvertently or conveniently. I, for example, have been known to switch between English and Spanish when taking notes. It is faster to write "hay" in Spanish than "it is" in English.

The Geogre said...

Outriggr, you're absolutely right.

The cell phone is like walking around with nitroglycerine. It might go off at any moment, and so it has to reorganize the conscious mind, at least, and demand first place. I may have overplayed the novelty of this to some degree, it occurs to me now, as the original telephone did/does this as well. Think of all of the "Oh, no, it's the phone" tropes that enter culture. The phone call that interrupts coitus on a Sitcom, the call that interrupts the parent child interaction, the call that interrupts dinner. As such, though, the phone became an object of fetish: both desire and dread. People looked forward to, and advertisements promised, "a place with no phones." The cell phone has held out such a large carrot, though, such a compensation, that people put the stick on their heads gladly.

Texting is a black hole of communication, absolutely. What, then, does it offer? There has to be something it offers. We're willing to tolerate the phone, and what do we get in return? There was a sociologist who saw the cell phone as a [[lek]] (a mating gift) and saw how many men in bars flipped out their phones to show their wealth/coolness/desirability in flirting, but that, by now, is useless. I think, now, that perhaps the text and cell phone simply offer the social structure, but without any actual interchange.

It's like a battery that is charged up with social position. People hit it again and again to get the jolt of society, but without the interchange. Maybe.

The Geogre said...


The Spanglish/Textlish is interesting, except that I think it might be something slightly... altered. Bilinguals always have a tendency to use the term that is best for the situation and to occasionally use an abbreviation or phrase that captures something the native language doesn't offer. E.g. e.g.

Our "original" abbreviations come from bilingualism. Exampli gratia, id est, quid videre, confere, et cetera are all foreign language, but they entered as abbreviations because they were lingua franca, and so they 1) offered speed, 2) captured something better, 3) could be understood by all. If we want to use "ttyl" and "lol" in regular language, it has to do those things again, but Internet and texting argot change week to week. Thus, they serve the private community, and they fairly often serve to mark an in-group, a group of "hip" speakers (just as all that Latin indicated "educated" writers).

I suppose that the Internet's global reach means that Internet-generated abbreviations can actually be worldwide, but they also need to be stable. I know that I use abbreviations that are meant really only for me in notes, but that's the danger: switching into that for a group would be a mistake. The same would be true of slang that my buddies and I devised in 1979. The problem is that the cell phone can lead us to confuse the private with the global, the ideolect with the dialect.

The Steve said...

Except, of course, you can turn the damn thing off... Most people don't, but when I had one (it is not convenient for me at this time) I actually set aside some amount of time every day when I would turn it off. Mostly I combined this with my nature walks, to get full enjoyment of all that I encountered. And text messages can wait in the queue, much as email (The preferred communication method of those of us with a more relaxed view of life) Also, when dining with friends (once they have all safely arrived) and while driving, off. I have unplugged my home phone as well, when I was feeling particularly antisocial.