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.


Sandie said...

To be fair, our postal workers struggle under the heavy load of junk mail primarily because their employers have chosen to sell their database to those who wish to lure us with their junk.

I agree with some of this - the Twittering, the mindlessness of it all, the collection of voices each angling for the same attention... but I'm not so sure about the (rather Luddite?!) view that email killed the letter. Yes, letters - those things we can fold and store away in a dusty drawer, the intimacy of handwriting rather than type... it's all very nostalgia-inducing, but emails can also be long, thoughtful, meaningful and plentiful.

This is both good thing and bad thing, I suppose - quantity is not quality, but where the two combine then email is likely *increasing* communication between people, not diminishing it. And letters, after all, were only a tool for communication.

Okay, waffle over. As you were. Vive l'email!

Sandie said...

(sorry, I meant I'm not so sure about the view that email killed the letter and the inference that somehow this means disaster for human communication. I hate typing into small boxes - can't see a damn thing!)

Simon Kearns said...

I wouldn't say it's a disaster for human communication. But the change is great. Emails can be long, thoughtful, etc, but - and this probably is nostaligia-tinged - do you relaly think emails will be rediscovered years from now, and pored over, and loved to the same degree as an envelope, a letter, the doodle in the corner, a signature, a faint trace of perfume?