way back in the day—like 15 years ago—the emergence of e-mail
was thrilling to me. I loved that I could have a rolling conversation
with someone, even a group of people, stretched over hours,
days, even weeks, along with the ability to choose my words,
edit and re-edit my thoughts, look over the arc of the conversation,
and chew on responses in my inbox.
E-mail also lifted the burden of telephone conversation, the
need for there to be the often awkward, uncomfortable, time-consuming
and unnecessary introductory small talk. I generally don’t
care how someone’s “doing,” even my friends, and chances are
they aren’t going to tell me anyway, but still there is this
societal prerogative to start every damned telephone conversation
with a “How’re you doing?” And too often this innocuous question
elicits a response, irrelevant to the planned topic of the
conversation, derailing thought, subject, and emphasis. I’m
as guilty of this as anybody; if something really good or
bad has happened to me, I’ll answer the “How’re you doing?”
by narcissistically blabbing away to the no-doubt totally
uninterested person on the other end of the line. Then there
is the equally difficult denouement, the winding-down
and wrapping-up of the conversation. Again, societal prerogative
demands that a phone conversation have a sufficient duration
lest one appear abrupt if not outright rude, and this results
in a stilted, strained, and totally useless jumble of words
designed to allow one to just get the hell off the phone already.
E-mail allowed one to forego all of this, and to make a point
or ask a question, hit it and quit it, press send, fade to
black, it’s a wrap, bébé. A five-minute phone call is now
a 10-second dance on the keyboard, and so much more effective.
But even more than the convenience of it, e-mail ushered in
what I thought was going to be a new golden era of the written
word. As long-distance telephone charges tanked in the ’80s
and ’90s, most people stopped writing letters to each other.
Those of us who are word people (you know who you are) seized
on e-mail as a way to reclaim the written word as a primary
communication tool. Even in shortened e-mail form, it’s a
glorious thing for us; we can tinker with sentence structure
and even use those big words we never figured out how to pronounce
correctly. We can craft with words again.
And it struck me that this would spill over to everyone. I’d
see my kids, just learning to write, stretching their little
brains, putting together coherent sentences and getting their
spelling right in order to talk to their friends via e-mail.
“This is just brilliant,” I was thinking.
Then along comes instant- and text-messaging, and my grand
hopes and dreams for the written word get all shot to hell!
Now, instead of nuanced wordplay, we get truncated, vowel-less
shorthand, a denuded language that strives to communicate
tiny thoughts in the simplest, starkest way. I dnt lk t. T
sks. I mn t. Sks!
And the extent to which kids have embraced texting, to the
utter derogation of straight-up e-mailing, is dramatic and
depressing. Recent studies have shown that kids consider e-mail
to be profoundly uncool, a geezer thing, about as useful to
them as sending smoke signals in a windy day. I’ll forward
an e-mail to my kid, and then have to remind her in a face-to-face
conversation to check her e-mail for my message. Somehow,
in a few short years, e-mail has become irrelevant—or, worse
than that, a dinosaur—to our kids.
Perhaps even more weirdly, kids seem to have a proprietary
interest in IM and text messaging. They seem to think it’s
theirs alone, a devolved linguistic sanctuary into which adults
should not wander. An adult breaking into their little communications
orb is every bit as horrifying to a kid as say, having a parent
with a band with a MySpace page. (Thanks for that one, Roz
Chast!) Believe me, I know.
So the little thumbs frantically punch in incomprehensible
streams of acronyms and gibberish, shot out over multi-billion
dollar wireless networks, bouncing off satellites, and rocketing
through fiber. We could have worse problems; they could be
just not communicating at all.
But I do wish it could be different. Words are important.
Call me old- fashioned.