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The Rise of the Word

March 14, 2012

Last week, I wrote that as our lives become more text based, we in turn become increasingly less human. I want to expand on that thought by focusing on the idea of the word itself.

The word is power. In the Book of Genesis, God creates the world with his word. In the New Testament book of John, God is the word (Word – logos). The written word first began as a way to record trade and administrative matters and later evolved into a means of political control. The Persian King Cyrus’s famous cylinder codifies his power over every other ruler on earth. From the earliest human civilizations comes this tradition of the word, especially the written word, as power in itself.

Face to Face Conversation: meaning and message come directly from the sender.

Technology has permitted us to harness this tremendous power. Gutenberg’s printing press made Martin Luther’s reformation possible and in the process changed the course of world history. Over 550 years later, the Internet created the greatest paradigm shift since Gutenberg and reconfirmed the power of the written word in the very midst of the television era (an era that spawned alarmist dystopian literature like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). With the Internet came e-mail. Soon, the BlackBerry mobile device made e-mail easier to access than ever. Finally, texting and Twitter arrived, and the written word assumed superiority over the spoken. In this, a battle waged from time immemorial came to an anti-climactic end in less than two decades.

The written word has become our preferred method of communication. There is one simple reason for this change, and it is not the convenience of text or e-mail. On the contrary, both texting and e-mail can often be vastly more inefficient than a simple phone call. No, texting’s popularity comes from the control that it gives us; it imbues us with power.

Unless you’re reading from a script, a phone call is an organic communication. Your thoughts come out unfiltered and inherently

Telephone Communication: The sender delivers a message to the recipient. The recipient supplies an interpretation and the sender a clarification. Together, they make the meaning.

imperfect. Because we are humans, we make mistakes. This is precisely what is so refreshing and real about a phone conversation; the joy of that unexpected, extemporaneous comment gives us the most pleasure. Two people on the phone are two minds sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings in real time.

Compare this experience with a text or an e-mail. Perhaps you draft an e-mail or a text but, unsatisfied, you return to it and edit, not just once, but time and time again. You struggle with every word and occasionally, every deliberate misspelling. The act of writing is calculated and safe. It is only when, in a rage, we send off a rant or an insult, that we regret the communication. We kick ourselves for not editing; we hate ourselves for expressing our true feelings.

Text, by offering us control over our message, insidiously asserts its control over us. Naturally, text, the word, does not have a mind of its own. But remember this: word is power and power asserts its control over those who wield it. Think of people corrupted by unbridled power: Mugabe, Gaddafi, Museveni, and on and on. Power left unchecked manipulates, corrupts, and ultimately destroys those who try to use it.

If texting is word, and word is power, and power corrupts, where does that leave us?

Text Communication: The sender's message is interpreted solely by the recipient. Its meaning is divorced from the intention of the sender.

Texting, e-mail, and social media are all attempts to reclaim control over our lives. Each of these abstracts us and dehumanizes us by stripping us down to words and images. The human voice is lost. What then is left of us but the digital self that we’ve created?

Understand, this is not why people text, but merely a consequence of it. We recognize the value of the text message as a tool for communicating, but along the way, we have also subconsciously recognized its power to manipulate (there’s a good reason why pick-up artists consider texting God’s greatest gift to men).

The perfect example of this texting paradigm is online dating. Here, two people who have never met can do something they’d probably never do in real life: approach an attractive stranger. Words become defense mechanisms, ways for two people to try and control and otherwise scary (and very real) interaction. There is something strangely business-like about two complete strangers setting up a first date having never once spoken to one another.

Remember Axiom #4. The implications of a text-based culture are not merely chilling, but dystopian.

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