Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Creating the Tools That Shape Us

I’ve been fighting to win at the game of catch-up when it comes to sleep. We’ve been away at another debate tournament, this time enjoying the peacefulness of the University of San Diego campus.

Tournaments have this one unwritten requirement that all participants (student competitor and adult parent-judge alike) must be able to thrive on less than enough sleep. Whether powered by sheer adrenaline or other more mundane substances like caffeine, the participant must be able to attend to proceedings for more hours in each day than should be humanly possible.

So the other day, when I finally had a chance to regain my pre-exhaustion equilibrium, I was somewhat annoyed that that opportunity was interrupted because my now-out-of-town husband had neglected to turn off his alarm clock. Thankfully, it was set for the more merciful weekend wake-up routine rather than his brutal workweek setting. That, however, meant I was now conscious enough to comprehend what his talk-radio squawk box announcer was saying before I flipped the switch—hence exposing me to an ear-worm that kept me from my morning’s intended purpose.

The announcer was giving a run-down of the various communications devices made available in recent years. I’m sure he was headed for the virtues of the newer social media at the point I pulled the plug. The part that stuck in my head, though, was his analysis of email: “the clunkiness of email.”

Clunkiness! As if email were no longer a viable tool, useless owing to its antiquated format. The thought was just incredible to me. Do you know how useful email is?! How it has streamlined not only communications in general, but work in particular? And that is “clunky”?

What would be next on his list of communications improvements? MySpace or Facebook, assuredly, would find a place. Twitter most certainly, honing the communications space even further. The task, it seems, in avoiding clunkiness in communication is to polish the skill of saying more in less space.

Fine. You can have your 140-character parameter. But there is only so much you can write on a postage stamp. I know I’ve already ranted about the fact that there isn’t much that can be said, beside weather report or dinner plans, in so short a space. What I’m concerned with now is the impact that thinking—and communicating those thoughts—in such short phrases might have on us as people.

It seems we rarely give thought to how the world we create is actually shaping us, its creators. In the campus buildings I spent last my last week at, however, the architecture made no secret about how it shaped us. This was a private college campus with Catholic roots. Its builders seemed to instill the virtues of the faith even in the walls that housed the people, both believers and non-believers, so that a reverent hush and saintliness descended on all visiting there. That, by the way, is no mere figure of speech. It was incredible to see people walk into a building, and—by the sheer shape and acoustical characteristics of the building—immediately assume the humble position of whisperer.

There is an artist that, earlier in the 20th century, perfected the technique of twisting the observer’s mind by drawing “up” as if it were “down.” M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” is the well-known 1953 lithograph print depicting staircases that seem to ascend if viewed in one direction, descend if seen from a different perspective.

Earlier in his career, Escher produced a lithograph, “Drawing Hands,” showing a hand drawing a hand which was (predictably in Escher fashion) drawing the first hand.

“Drawing Hands” has become the visual icon, in my mind, of what we are doing to our verbal selves when we hamper our abilities to connect interpersonally under the guise of honing our communication skills. We don’t realize the impact our self-imposed limitations have on our own out-reaching minds.

There is no doubt that friends, visiting with friends in Charles Dickens’ England, would take quite a bit longer to finish their sentences than friends hanging at today’s mall or coffee shop might take. However, I wonder at the possibility that today’s conversation might be no more verbose than the proverbial cave man’s might be. We chop, whittle, and discard all the “extraneous” words to be concise…and also suck out all the flavor, freeze-dry the content, and UPC barcode the synopsis as time-saving devices so we can do more.

More what?

The exercise of taking time to express one’s self represents not only the contents of what the speaker or writer is saying, but the process of developing the thought behind it. While this is not always true, saying more may very well mean thinking more. At least it puts a person in the position of feeling the need to do so.

If all we are required, in our “modern” society, is the ability to say something in 140 characters, we will either be elevated to the status of master haiku creators, or reduced to the off-the-cuff redundancy of driveling rehashers of the weather and dinnertime repasts. If we vacuum-pack our contents, what does that say of the brains required to produce that content? Most people are simply not up to that challenge. As far as I’ve seen, the smaller the container, the skimpier the content.

Twitter? For clunkiness, I prefer War and Peace. But I’ll take email any day.

1 comment:

Mary said...

I relate to so much of what you've written here. Perhaps we could also see it as progress. The busyness of our world has reduced the amount of "sit down and talk" time and the majority of people don't even realize it. If they do, they feel they can't do a thing about it due to their priorities of house and family. This loss takes its toll because we humans are built for connection. The ground swell of participation in these types of online sites may be an indication of the attempt to meet this need, whether it's recognized or not. Jumping from no communication to little communication is better than nothing. Hopefully the "little" communication will be seen for what it is... not enough.

When I joined Facebook a couple of months ago, the inadequacy of communicating complete thoughts with meaning bothered me too. I settled in my mind that it was what it was and I'd work with that, at least for now. I could change my mind tomorrow.

On a certain level I think it works. Every once in awhile I make contact with someone I would not have communicated with otherwise and we re-establish our friendship through real conversation... kind of like you and me.

That's my two-cents...

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