We live in a world full of information. One can hardly walk down the street without being bombarded by a constant stream of textual data: advertisements, traffic signs, and of course the buzzing smartphone waiting to be acknowledged. Some time ago, I wrote a post in which I discussed the trend away from extensive reading and why it is disconcerting. Today, I would like to discuss a related albeit technically distinct phenomenon: the trend to shorten communication altogether. This phenomenon is a generalization of the decline in extensive reading, but this post focuses primarily on communication in the electronic, personal sense. And, what better way to criticize the abridged communication of the era than to write about it on a blog?
The practice of truncating personal communications is one with a long history. By all indications, since the dawn of language, speakers have found ways to condense speech in an organic way. There is archeological evidence that idioms, proverbs, and slang were present even in very early human languages. It takes surprisingly little searching to find accounts of Latin grammarians complaining that the common tongue had strayed from the righteous path, representing nothing but a bastardized form of what they held as proper Latin. Besides idioms and the like, a significant reduction in communication length can be achieved by changing complex sounds to simpler ones, or eliminating certain sounds altogether. Much of the fuss coming from educated speakers of Latin was due to precisely this sort of phonetic shift. Native speakers of modern languages from Spanish to French to Italian have such shifts, among other things, to thank for their matris lingua, as the Romans might have called it.
Of course, writing has not eschewed compressing language, either. Some of the earliest writings are carvings into stone. It makes sense to take less space and therefore less energy when writing in this manner. Later, animal hide, papyrus, parchment, and other materials revolutionized the practice of inscription, but such materials were for a long time quite valuable. The effort required to produce materials with which to pen the œuvres of the day was substantial, and frequently the economics of scarcity dictated terms. Scribes commonly reused whatever form of tablet was available to them, perhaps writing over works of considerable importance to the modern person. This is why we have individuals recounting stories of scribes writing over works by Archimedes, and claiming that said works would have accelerated the development of calculus by perhaps centuries, a completely unfounded claim, by the way. Less well known is the practice of employing a large number of shorthands and abbreviations, some quite intricate. It is a common misconception that “ye” (pronounced “y-ē”) was the predecessor to “the” in an older variant of English, specifically Anglo-Saxon. The word “þe,” the true predecessor to modern “the,” was commonly abbreviated by writing with the “e” above the “þ,” because this saved space on the line. (That weird letter goes by the name of “thorn” and makes something very close to the modern “th” sound.) With the advent of the printing press, “y” was used in place of “þ” due to the letters’ similar appearances. (Typesetters did not have the letter “þ” in their typefaces to work with.) So, the word “ye” was never anything but an approximation of “þe.” Sigla -scribal abbreviations – cannot be avoided if one wishes to read many important historical works. Some sigla were very intricate, even requiring some calligraphic skill (e.g., the siglum for “quoque”). Others were somewhat crude (e.g., the shortening of words to their first few letters such as “AVG”).
We still use some of these abbreviations, for instance “RIP” originally stood for “requiescat in pace.” Other examples include “e.g.,” “i.e.,” and “etc” as well as the rare ligature such as “Æ.” Not only this, but sigla effected real linguistic change. We have Vulgar Latin scribes to thank for “i” and “u” being vowels while “j” and “v” are consonants. Some modern sigla such as dollar signs and ampersands are easy to identify, but medical scribes use far less recognizable abbreviations on a daily basis and journalists sometimes still use shorthand (in its many variants).
Scribal abbreviations come in many forms. The simplest case is where letters are simply left out or replaced by a single, small symbol. Such abbreviations have always been made necessary due to scarcity. The tenth century monestary scribe had no option but to shorten his writing or communicate less. The modern medical scribe has no option but to shorten his writing or miss critical information, certainly slowing the pace is out of the question. So, why do we so commonly abbreviate our language today? Where is the scarcity?
It did not take long after the dawn of the communication revolution for this practice of reducing the length of correspondence to become popular. In the early days of the internet, email, and cellular phones small groups were already using now mainstream abbreviations such as the ubiquitous “LOL.” Before long, several dozen truncations found their way into the vocabulary of the average internet user, and some groups took this even further, utilizing instead many hundreds in “leet speak” and other such internet dialects. More than likely, this state of affairs can be attributed to two things: scarcity of time and an opportunity to produce a novel lingua franca for the age of the internet, perhaps one of more efficiency and more humor. Few would argue with scarcity of time playing a role. With the world’s employed working as many hours as they do, the world’s transportation sector being as rushed as it is, and the world’s noteworthy events being as frequent as they are, it is hard not to feel we could all use more time. If only there were more hours in the day.
The tendency to prefer efficient communication is sensible enough. I would not be all that surprised if in a few centuries the world’s predominant language was not English but a constructed language, which was compact and easy to learn, the best of Mandarin and Esperanto. There is something to be said for formal English, or, more precisely, Standard American English, but that is a discussion for another day. At least the motivation for and utility of abbreviations such as “LOL” is well understood. Can the same be said of sound-bite media coverage or one hundred forty character expressions of self? Are incredibly brief summaries of vast amounts of information justifiable in the same was as sigla or phrases of speech? Is there sufficient scarcity to warrant the extremity of the action?
I will pose as a response to these questions a sympathetic “no.” While efficiency is generally seen as good, this is not efficiency, but rather exclusion. The eighty-twenty rule may have some truth to it, but no one has ever argued for a ninety-one principle. I feel that drastic reduction in length has doomed us to misunderstanding and plagued us with inefficiency.
My birthplace of Hagerstown, Maryland came under the national spotlight recently, for one of the only times in my life. There was an incident involving a fifteen-year-old girl being pepper-sprayed by police while being detained after involvement in a traffic accident. Many saw this as an example of police brutality and racism (the girl was of mixed race). The first national publication I saw mention the story was Mic on Twitter, where the organization posted a video showing the girl being pulled off her bike, pushed against a wall, and pepper-sprayed in a squad car. I took issue with this coverage, because, whether this is an example of excessive force or not, there was some significance to the other ten minutes of the encounter such as the lawful order of a police officer to stop, the attempt of the girl to flee the scene after being given said lawful order, the violent language and action taken by the girl directed toward the police officers involved, and the girl’s failure to move her legs into the squad car so that the door could be closed. I replied to Mic’s tweet with one of my own, which reads as follows:
@mic whether you think this was wrongful or not, you’re deceitfully leaving out her language and hitting officers among other things.
Never before have I received as much backlash for something said on Twitter, or indeed online or in person whatsoever, as I did for that tweet. The problem is with the phrasing. It can be perceived as implying I did not sympathize with the girl involved, or perhaps that I thought foul language was enough to warrant use of pepper spray. To be clear, neither of those things are true. My opinion on the matter could fill several pages, but it could be succinctly summarized to some degree of accuracy in a single paragraph. I had no chance to accurately express myself in an unambiguous and not easily misinterpreted way in a mere one hundred forty characters. I generally keep this in mind when using Twitter, and I try not to read too far into tweets, but this is not the case for everyone, and it is difficult to clarify when one’s conversational partner is actively angry or looking to fulfill an agenda from the beginning.
There is a reason Twitter has considered increasing the character limit, services specifically dedicated to longer tweets exist, and a large number of photos posted on Twitter are of text to supplant a traditional tweet. The current system is a bad one, leaving us liable to misunderstanding one another. It is artificial scarcity of the highest order. Restricting users to one hundred forty characters requires they inefficiently communicate. Often, the path chosen is to attempt to speak to something incredibly complex in just a few words.
There is a limit to how efficiently we can represent ideas. Words represent ideas; they themselves have intrinsic meaning, but that is not generally what is important in everyday conversation. Language might reduce the efficiency of communication, but some space is required to communicate substantial amounts of information, irrespective of language.
Out of the entirety of the internet, the website I enjoy visiting the least is probably either Buzzfeed or Forbes. The reason is simple: advertisements are everywhere, pushing out any actual content and encouraging bad design. Every other page on the site seems to be the same cookie cutter slideshow format. A typical story might be entitled “Twenty Tips to Operate a Successful Start-Up,” which will consist of twenty-two individual pages: an introduction, a page for each of the twenty tips, and a conclusion page.
Again, we have artifical scarcity, this time in the form of page space. It seems some have forgotten how the scroll function works. Note that time is actually lost due to the time required to load pages. Worse still, the process is horribly inefficient. You are typically presented with very little information about the subject at hand, instead receiving a dozen or two brief blurbs, each of which is supposed to be somehow significant and memorable. The little time spent reading is time wasted. There is no substance left to the tips. There is actually a great deal of information present on the pages, it is just that most of it is in advertising, which is information you did not ask for, do not want, and do not need; it is useless information. The inefficiency in this example is thus twofold.
It would be reasonable to say humans seek the path of least resistance. We want things to be easy. Politics should be simple, distillable to nothing more than a few zingers and a stump speech or two. Science should be easy to understand, nothing more than a few physical laws stated in plain English. Success should be effortlessly obtained, only a list of tips on Forbes is required. This is all fantasy, but that is a good thing. Things worth communicating have depth to them. We should not expect to ponder the intricacies of tax policy, the philosophy of religion, or the efficacy of sport strategies in a few words. To do such a thing is simply impossible.