language, other topics

Can We Talk?


People worry about language. The people who worry the most seem to be our public intellectuals, smart people who have better things to worry about. They worry mostly that language, or some aspect of it, is going to hell, and that the completion of this process (very soon) will mean the end of our species as we know it.


So the pundits agonize or have agonized, for instance, over lexical and grammatical change (impact becoming a transitive verb; lie giving up the ghost in favor of lay). They have trouble coming to terms with new ways of talking: Valley Girl and Black English, in both of which groups formerly scorned as ignorant or stupid are forcing – or enticing – superior others to borrow their communicative styles.


Now another highly regarded “scientist” or better STEMmer, Sherry Turkle, is worrying about the decline of “conversation” due to the increasing prevalence of texting and other social media options, like Twitter and Facebook. Her worry is that, because so many of us, especially members of the younger generation, spend a lot of time in non face-to-face (F2F) interactive modalities, we are: (1) no longer conversing in the old-fashioned way; (2) therefore losing the human capacities that traditional F2F communication taught us, like empathy; and (3) losing the ability to think complex thoughts, which F2F used to require us to master. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation which makes these arguments, has lately been the object of much discussion in the various media, generally reviewed highly sympathetically by influential people. Jonathan Franzen gave it a laudatory front-page review in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, October 4; Turkle has been interviewed on the PBS NewsHour and Charlie Rose and on PRI’s Science Friday.


The intelligentsia, of course, knows how to talk:, namely the way they have always talked, so any change is naturally for the worse. Not surprisingly, the worriers are also almost always members of my generation, i.e. old people. This is unsurprising since it is the young who are always behind language change, and the fact that they create and are comfortable with novelties that force their parents and grandparents to appeal to them for help drives older people (who feel that they have earned the right to be the language bosses) up the wall. Turkle herself is 67 — the right age to display these attitudes. Our incompetence is most overt around new devices: we have to appeal to youngsters for help with computers, smartphones, and the communicative forms used on such devices, like texting and email. There must, the elders mumble in embarrassment, be something wrong with this aberration; it never used to be like this!


Ah, but it has – always.


Socrates, a member of the older generation, was not happy when general literacy (the expectation that males of the higher social classes should be able to read and write) came to Athens in the fifth century BCE. Experiencing previously oral forms of communication, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, in written texts rather than acquired by oral and aural rote memorization, he argued, would make them individual rather than group – Greek – experiences and water down the sense of shared Greek identity. Ironically (and Socrates was no stranger to irony), we are aware that Socrates was wrestling with this problem (or any problem) only because his literate pupil, Plato, wrote down his oral communications. Without literacy, his thoughts would be lost to us.


When the printing press arrived in the mid-fifteenth century, many of the most influential people in Europe were horrified: now everyone would be able to possess and read his (probably not her) very own Bible and form his own conclusions about what it meant, without the intervention of priests! More than one printer died at the stake as a result of printing copies of the Bible.


When the telephone moved into wide residential use in the late 19th century, again there was a lot of angst in intellectual quarters. Serious people argued in serious magazines that the use of the phone would cost us our privacy (anyone could barge into our homes unbidden) and force society into privatism (people would no longer need to see one another F2F on the street or in other public places, but would remain holed up in their private homes). The phone, Mark Twain argued semi-humorously, would make complex thought impossible: as soon as he had settled down to work, the thing would jangle and break his concentration. (The irony here is that Twain was an early adopter of new technology: not only was his the first residential phone in Elmira, New York, but he was the first writer to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher.)


Over a century later, in the 1990s, email was the new bête noir. Old-fashioned literati complained that email would encourage trivial communication; force the culture into greater informality (no more bread-and-butter notes!); and encourage us to commit faux pas because hitting send is so much easier than folding a snail mail letter, putting it into an envelope, addressing, sealing, and stamping it, and finding a mailbox to put it in: at each step, the writer could rethink, and perhaps decide not to send, the offensive missive. All of these turned out to be true, as a matter of fact, but civilization has not come to an end, except maybe in the State Department.


In time email gave birth to the chatroom. The telephone had proven a means of escape from the confines of the home for the late Victorian woman, leading to a subgenre of mass literature in which respectable wives were seduced and led into unspeakable depravity by evil males calling on the phone. Similarly, in the mass media of the first decade of the 2000s, there developed a subgenre of TV newsmagazine story in which children were led astray by evil males in chatrooms posing as teenagers and leading teenage girls into unspeakable depravity. In both subgenres, the impression was given that this depravity was a common outcome of the new communicative technology. Deplorable things probably happened on occasion, but much more rarely than readers or viewers were encouraged to believe.


So it is not surprising that in the middle of the second decade of this century, the newest communicative channels have become scapegoats. Turkle is just the latest and perhaps most prestigious worrier.


Those anxious over new communicative channels base their concerns on three premises: (1) humans can manage only one channel, or anyway only the old ones, at a time. Introduce more, and they will lose the ones they have; (2) the old forms are necessarily better than the new, and the new add nothing of value; (3) using the new forms makes us dumber and less social – i.e., less human.


But these assumptions are fatally flawed and based on misunderstandings of what human language is and how it works for us.


Of course we can manage several channels, using each as it is best suited to be used. We incorporated literacy, movable type, the telephone, and email over time, and now find all of these indispensable. The old forms are good for what they were designed to do, and the new forms, as they come in, take up the slack – do things the old forms could not. Literacy enabled us to preserve ideas and transmit them across space and time, as F2F communication cannot. Texting and social media enable users to communicate at a distance with ease and express feelings that might be impossible to talk about F2F.


It may be the third complaint that fills the intelligentsia with the most dread. But literacy didn’t make us anti-social, and Google doesn’t make us dumber. In fact, Google and Wikipedia save writers enormous amounts of time, allowing the creative aspect of research free rein.


The critics make other assumptions, ones that come under the heading, “romanticizing language”:


  • language is an artifact, not a mere tool that allows us to get things done. It is not a hammer, it is a Picasso, and changing it in any way destroys its value;
  • the form in which a language exists already – lexically, grammatically, functionally and communicatively – is intrinsically perfect, and messing with it will corrupt it and make it nonfunctional;
  • language, like other objects of romantic obsessions, must stay constant and thereby pure and perfect.


But language is, first and foremost, a tool, and improvements in a tool are desirable. No one objects if someone invents a better hammer. Language should be seen as a work in progress, one our species has been perfecting for many millennia but can still be improved upon. Making changes in all the ways we communicate is both unavoidable (the form of every language is always in flux, and meaning and communicative possibilities are never lost as a result), and either value-free (the Great Vowel Shift that occurred over five centuries in English did not make the language either worse or better, nor did it make communication impossible. It just happened) or value-added, as with literacy, the telephone, the printing press, and the various forms of electronic communication. Language is seldom pure (creative cultures eagerly borrow, or steal, and innovate) and never perfect (but good enough for our purposes).


Turkle is especially annoying because she represents herself as a “scientist” who does “experiments” to prove her case. I can’t assess the experiments accurately, having encountered them only in her and her reviewers’ descriptions. But a lot of them seem to involve talking to small groups of people, asking leading questions. Often one suspects that the subjects know what is the “smart” answer, and provide it. Or she makes the wrong comparison, for instance by contrasting the use of texting with the use of F2F talking, rather than with no communication at all. And then she uses the data she derives from these “scientific” studies to make broad and dubious claims.


The one claim of Turkle’s that has attracted the most attention is the one I find silliest: that those (the young) who make a lot of use of social media and texting have, as a result, lost the capacity for empathy. Empathy, Turkle argues, is created via F2F contact. Oddly, she doesn’t consider another claim often made by older intellectuals: that reading great literature builds the capacity for empathy. The relationship between a contemporary reader and Leo Tolstoy is hardly F2F. Yet works like Anna Karenina may very well encourage in readers the ability to understand and sympathize with people who have had experiences very different from our own.


Turkle suggests that texting “I’m sorry” is inferior as an expression of empathy to saying it orally. But it makes more sense to understand that there are times when a F2F apology is the best option, and times when the unpleasant job is better done, or only able to be done, via texting. It is certainly easier to apologize at a distance. So the argument that texting and other long-distance forms of discourse deprive us of direct emotional contact and thereby reduce our empathic capacities seems to me highly dubious and requiring much more rigorous research to be proven. Turkle often cites her “research” to prove that her claims are right, but in fact – as far as I can tell from her descriptions in interviews – her studies seem remarkably flimsy.


Again like her colleagues, Turkle seems to assume that, once started, texting will replace all forms of communication, a kind of communicative Gresham’s Law. But there’s no evidence for this. Walk across a college campus: you will see some kids walking by themselves and texting. But you will also see small groups talking. The young have merely added computer-mediated communication to their old-fashioned options. They talk F2F when that’s the best way to do the job, and they text or tweet or Facebook when those are more efficient, convenient, or pleasant. It seems quite possible that those who have access to all current communicative options actually do more interfacing with one another than us old fogies who don’t, and so arguably are more human, more social, and smarter than we are. Oof.


So where is Turkle coming from? I smell an irony here. She represents herself as a scientist, thereby making her claims credible. But really her perspective is that of a very different institution.


Science is forward-looking and optimistic. Scientists believe that we have not yet reached a golden age – the more we learn and the more possibilities we develop, the better we ourselves become and the closer to that golden age we get. (This may not always be strictly true, but it’s their story and they’re sticking to it.)


Religion, on the other hand, looks backward to a golden age, for instance a Garden of Eden, a world that existed for us before we sinned and were punished, before we lost our innocence through the acquisition of knowledge, before we allowed our intrinsic curiosity to lead us astray. That is the way Turkle and similar critics look at new media and new forms of human expression: as none-too-original sin, for which we are being punished by losing our selves. Turkle belongs to the camp of religion rather than science.