Is it just me, or has the increase in methods of communication paralleled a decrease in its quality? We are pummeled nonstop by advertisements on how we may constantly stay in touch with one another and/or broadcast (read: affirm) ourselves to the world at large, yet I don’t see how the level of discourse has risen accordingly. In fact, each new breakthrough seems designed to limit consideration and depth, while elementary grammar and spelling take a hit. Language, context, continuity – who really gives a damn?
Here’s part of the story. Letters gave way to email, which gave way to instant messaging. In each case, there was less room and less demand for substance. Let’s say a friend and I could have lengthy, comprehensive conversations in person, and he was known to write a thoughtful letter when at a distance. The arrival of email expedited the communication process, although suddenly it was acceptable to dash something off – not quite a replacement for the multi-page letter, much less for conversing in person. By the time the other party started emailing from the mobile phone, missives had literally dried up to one line, two being an epic. Call this convenience, but something was lost.
Through weblogs, forums, myspace, facebook, youtube, add-your-comment fields for news stories, etcetera, we’ve been conditioned to sit the trivial alongside the significant, the whimsical alongside the professionally edited. And now there’s Twitter – the reason for me writing this particular missive, and in my view, the most blatant reduction of language and thought in favor of glorified ephemera. I first encountered Twitter in 2008 while watching some CNN news-info show (a bout of masochism, to be sure) in the midst of a US election year (triple masochism – never again). The host said with cautious enthusiasm, “We’ve got Twitter set up just to my right here, I’ll be reading your comments” and then he proceeded with the already-flaky program, periodically peering at the little screen to read one of these dandies aloud. It was completely useless and distracting; what else could it have been? What possible insight – remember this is national television – can the peanut gallery provide with spontaneous one-liners? Is it supposed to represent a “discussion?” If so, it’s an extremely disconnected one, contrary to the reassurance of “being connected.”
Anyway, based on that, I filed Twitter in the techno fad drawer, mistakenly thinking it would disappear because it was too limited to catch on. But there’s no reversing the ‘running update’ mentality, and months later, a couple websites of my preference have taken it aboard for various purposes, and they’re still dicking around with Twitter on television. From what I can discern, the results are still useless. It’s disheartening to see thought reduced to such evaporative tidbits that shed brief, random light at best. And this is supposed to facilitate communication? Is anything important being said?
I can’t accept reductive alternatives just because they’re new. How am I supposed to fully appreciate a picture, let alone a video clip or movie, on a phone screen? How can I experience the pleasure of browsing a book on a handheld electronic device? How can I hear the music coming from a compressed file playing from mini-speakers? Give me the big screen, give me the good sound system and real headphones, put a real guitar in my hands and not a video game controller. Give me unlimited, well-chosen words, either in person or in print. I stopped passing notes a long time ago.
Of course technology itself is neutral, its implications revealed en masse by users over time. Having a personal phone is certainly handy, yet it can also be a yakkity-yak addiction and hazardous traffic distraction for a lot of folks. Blogs are as good, bad, valuable, or trivial as their authors (and commentators). Forums are blank canvases filled by the goodwill or bad vibes of their posters, and brevity is often favored. I accept the shortcomings of electronic communication for the chance to exchange information with people I otherwise wouldn’t meet, but my tolerance for fragmented, devolving language has bottomed out. I’m yet to glean anything useful from Twitter fields, only slightly surprised that established media have endorsed them, and incapable of condensing my thoughts and expectations enough to participate.
Then there’s the Leash Factor – enslaved to the inboxes, missed calls, updating the blog, forums. Set up the account, buy the toy, feel obligated to use it. Take it all away and a person gets antsy. There’s only so much I can personally be tied to before infotainment turns to resentment, and I don’t hesitate to saw free from deadweight. I don’t understand the need for running updates, either. Even the most interesting people on this planet can only tell you they’ve shined their shoes so many times. Expansive thoughts require space and development. By the way, when politicians take to twittering and you-tubing, are they pandering, or is their message really on that level?
Now that I’ve likely alienated a few readers, I confess that I’m not a hobbling curmudgeon who curses them newfangled machines. I think I fit the mid-30s demographic (techno savvy, with some extra income) that is supposed to embrace any new item that pops up. Yet I often wind up bemused or disappointed; for example, I’ve zero interest in any of the toys Steve Jobs tries to sell me. The planned obsolescence of the computer industry is as obvious as it is unapologetic, and I don’t leap into version 1.0 of anything. Forget the bells and whistles and rinkydink apps, I try to grasp the overall concepts of new technologies that rush by in ever quicker succession – what does Item X enable, how might it condition me, and very simply, do I need it? Is it a less satisfactory replacement for something I already have? Does it devalue something else?
I’ve been of the opinion that the communications boom, outside of professional uses, actually devalues communication to some degree. With Twitter, this seems to have reached its lowest point. But why worry, it’s harmless, and it doesn’t require my presence. Besides, in time, some other method of instantaneous blathering will take its place.