Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Instant messaging & language

The earliest forms of instant messaging over distances were optical telegraphs. A fire on a hill, a reflection of the sun, flags at angles. From 1792 to 1846, Napoleon used a semaphore network that extended across the whole of France. The updated Prussian system required towers every thirty kilometres and had a rate of about two words per minute.

The introduction of electricity produced real speed. In 1804, Francesco Salvà i Campillo, a Spanish doctor of medicine, designed a machine to send messages by electrical impulse. It was realised a few years later in Germany, and involved thirty-five tubes of acid, electrolysed by one of thirty-five wires that covered most Latin letters and numerals. The relevant jar would bubble to signify the character.

In 1833, Gauß and Weber used a positive and negative current to transmit the alphabet in binary code. The first message they sent would serve us well in our age of mass and instant communication. "Wissen vor meinen – Sein vor scheinen", "Knowing before opining, being before seeming.”

It only took another thirty-three years for the first transatlantic cable to be laid.

With the invention and spread of the telephone, instant communication became private. Previously, intimacy was kept under the wraps of the envelope, as telegraphing had to be conducted through an intermediary. The telephone would eventually grant the public instant information exchange in assumed privacy.

The arrival of email sounded a death knell for the art of letter writing, albeit a discrete, electronic chime. Emails have seriously reduced our ability to write letters, even our desire to write letters. Our postal workers strain under heavier bags, but this is due to two separate factors: the cuts in their numbers, and the sheer tonnage of physical junk mail delivered every day.

Longer emails will be checked for errors with no evidence of correction. The more common, shorter email doesn’t care about typos, general sense is understood, speed is the objective. The nature of what we wish to communicate is also changing. Personal letters were generally one to one communications. The email allows us to mail any number of people at once. We can send that holiday postcard to one and all with the click of a button. Specificity goes out the Microsoft window; a group email cannot correspond in the same way as a personalised, dedicated letter.

Furthermore, when we use email we see adverts all around our personal messages – this cheapens the message even more, draws it into the spectacle, the private is suffused with the public; our secrets carry commercials.

SMS, or short message service, had a number of origins. In Finland the system was used by Nokia engineers to inform of their whereabouts when out in the field. The company decided to offer the service to customers and very quickly realised that SMS was being used by teenagers to organise their social lives.

SMS has spawned a new sub language, and probably a new form of RSI. This is the telegraph message in the hands of the general public; the thumb dashes and dots across the keypad, corralled by predictive text into the most commonly used words.

Predictive text is the bane of language. Whereas once we may have sought for the right word, the perfect phrase, now we have a little help. By suggesting the most common words beginning with the first letters entered, our means of communication is, like Napoleon’s flags, constricting our expression. Words are gutted of vowels; the confused consonants crowd each other like the pressing queue for the last bus home. Hurry up, hurry up. Words made unfamiliar in this condition are avoided and so vocabulary diminishes.

Jean Baudrillard saw this coming. In 1996 he wrote: “At what threshold of consciousness of formalization will the machine intervene? … Thought would end up thinking only what the machine can take in and process.” (The Perfect Crime)

Despite this, one example serves to reassure the writer, Wikipedia lists a common predictive text error (a textonym), which chooses the word "book" to mean "cool" since book is debatably considered more frequently used than "cool" by some predictive text systems. Not for long I would imagine.

And now we have tweets. Every one of those 140 characters in a tweet message can be reduced to two words: I exist.

It is interesting, for a minute or two, to click from user to user, reading idle inanities swapped among friends and strangers. To wander from tweeter to tweeter is to stroll amongst the soundless chattering of a twenty-four hour chorus.

The restrictions could have brought about a haiku-like search for just the right word. Instead, wholly in line with the character limit’s origin in accommodating the cramped SMS style, tweets have incorporated the text slang of the short message service.

There are roughly a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, excluding declensions. Our vocabulary is being decimated – no, strike that, for decimation is one in ten, our vocabulary is being obliterated.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The beginning of the end

We heard the rumours only a month before we saw them. The coastal tribes crossed our lands in retreat. What was left of them. They said the new ones arrived on clouds. They said not even the mountains would be safe.

I saw them for the first time on the third night of the planting moon. The wind carried the smell of roasted goat, stolen from our neighbours. Some of their music reached us in the tree line. It was an abrupt measure, full of stops and starts, jagged, as if their souls would always be restless.

In the morning we saw that their tents filled the plain and we knew our world was over.

Friday, 4 March 2011


At the beginning of every May, the date was variable, a quirk in the alignment of buildings around the third floor flat of Sandra Cavendish allowed a triangle of sunlight to appear on the kitchenette’s west wall. It began as a faint luminescence, vaguely discernable about a foot up from the skirting. An isosceles of light lasting half an hour which brightened as the sun rose, easing from regularity to an elongated scalene as it slid to the floor, always to be extinguished before getting there. For only six days, dependent on clouds, the visitation waxed and waned. Then was gone. It coincided with the rising of Sandra herself, who was up at seven-thirty almost every day. She spotted it the first spring she lived in the flat, and thereafter every year. On these mornings she felt good. The corners of things weren’t as belligerent as normal, the pills not so bitter.

One morning she angled a compact so as to mirror the beam back into the room, across the sofa to the television. The following day, ready for the experiment, she bounced the light from kitchenette to a hand glass on the television that cast it onwards to a framed photocopy of Klimt’s kiss. By the end of the six days allotted her, she had included four reflective surfaces and a diminutive mirror ball.

Inevitably the solar event ended. Normality reasserted itself. But she left the mirrors in place, for already the countdown of months had begun until the sun, tired, weakened, returned southwards and the ping-pong lightshow reappeared.