Monday, July 14, 2014

Texting Ourselves to Death

Time for another quote by yours truly, this one appearing in a story published in Fordham University's newsletter, Inside Fordham, on June 24, written up by Tom Stoelker. The title of the article is Texting: Do Fewer Words Equal Less Literacy? and there's also a heading that reads, "The Human Mind in Decline" (that has a catchy sound to it, don't you think?).

Anyway, the piece begins with a few paragraphs about a recent talk given at Fordham by a philosophy scholar:

On a recent visit to Fordham, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, Ph.D., explained what many students already know and practice: cell phones are not for talking. In his new book to be published this summer by Fordham University Press, Where Are You? An Ontology of the Cell Phone, Ferraris argues that cell phones are writing machines.

“If you can use your living voice, why would you use dead letters?” Ferraris asked. “Because we don’t like the voice.”

By taking the function of the phone from voice to writing, he argues, the smart phone essentially becomes a recording machine, a journal. Since text could be publicly available well after the conversation is completed, it also outlasts the life of the actual conversation—as well as that of the writer.

“The basis of this sort of social bond is not communication, but recordability,” he said. Ferraris’ view hints at the growing debate among academics as to how texting is changing literacy and sociability.

Clearly, Ferraris does not understand communication, and the essential point made by media ecology scholars such as Harold Innis, James Carey,  Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, that we can communicate over time as well as over space. He certainly does not seem to be aware of Alfred Korzybski's basic concept of time-binding, which is made possible by humanity's capacity for language and symbolic communication. Whether it's preserving the cultural heritage and essential knowledge via oral tradition, or the storing of knowledge outside of collective memory through writing, print, photography, and audio and visual recording devices, or information storage and retrieval via digital technologies, communicating over time has a great deal to do with the maintenance of social bonds, as well as cultural continuity.

Okay, end of rant, and now it's my turn to weigh in:

Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies, said that when this generation’s new media first arrived on the scene, its emphasis on text spurred hope of a new generation of literacy. But now that the net has become increasingly visual, Strate says that a “telegraphic discourse” has come to dominate, where images and immediacy vie for cell phone users’ attention.

Strate’s recently published book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014), reframes Postman’s assertion that image-saturated media undermine reading and rhetoric.

“New media continues to be text-based, but it’s becoming much more visual,” he said. Strate said that in Postman’s view an increased emphasis on image elicits emotional rather than rational responses to information. On the flipside, today’s emphasis on efficiency creates what Strate calls “hyperrationality,” which he compared to a numbers game.

“Both take us away from the balance of oral and literate,” he said.

And of course I am grateful for the mention of my new book. But that's it for me, and what's interesting about Tom's article is that it presents a succession of viewpoints. Here are the next two:

Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp, Ph.D., during a visit to Fordham, said that texting has spawned “one of the greatest crises in America.”
“Millennial students don’t know the basic rules of discourse. They are struggling to learn how to communicate face-to-face and not just on the iPhone,” she said at a recent Center for Ethics Education symposium.

But there are others who find the changes less threatening. Addressing the Fordham faculty at Faculty Technology Day, tech writer David Pogue said that “every generation has its bugaboo” and that “we tend to worry more than necessary.”

And now, returning to Fordham faculty, the view from noted education scholar and children and media expert Fran Blumberg:

Associate Professor of Education Fran Blumberg concurs. “I don’t see it as that dramatic, as if this is going to change the face of the human race, or like we’re going to have chips in our brain,” said Blumberg, Ph.D., who teaches counseling psychology in the Graduate School of Education (GSE). Blumberg, whose own research includes the development of children’s attention in digital learning settings, said the phenomenon is clearly a cross-disciplinary problem, involving media studies, childhood development, cognitive psychology, business, and, of course, computer science.

And another representative from Fordham's School of Education:

Kristen Turner, Ph.D., a GSE associate professor, is an expert on the nature of digital language and the choices students make in their digital writing. Turner said that using the written language in place of oral communication has learning possibilities that should be exploited.

“The students are very aware of their audience when they text, and as a writing teacher I’m always trying to explain ‘audience.’ In texting, they get it,” she said. “My perspective is that literacy is changing. We have to teach differently and learn differently because of that. And we better do it fast or we’ll be in trouble.”

And returning to the field of philosophy, the final commentary goes to my colleague and friend, Babette Babich:

Babette Babich, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, said that fear of new technology is nothing new, and she teaches that in a Philosophy and Media class. She points out that, in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the Egyptian myth of the god Theuth and King Thamus to make the case for the superiority of rhetoric, memory, and the spoken word over the then-newfangled written text.

“Those who acquire [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” Socrates said. “They will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs, instead of by their own internal remembrances.”

“We live on a diet of texts, Tweets, and ‘likes,’ always hungry for the next dopamine rush of the new,” said Babich. “But the problem is that today’s students have an anxiety in the time pressures of receiving and replying to a text.”

“If for Socrates the human mind has been in decline since writing began, the ‘rules’ for texting can accelerate that decline.”

The irony, of course, is that Plato recorded Socrates’ words in text.

And that ends the article. Here are some additional comments that didn't make it into the piece:

McLuhan never predicted the disappearance of writing altogether, and anyone who is familiar with McLuhan will find comments to the contrary extremely annoying. 

When McLuhan said that writing was becoming obsolescent, he didn't mean it would be rendered extinct. McLuhan stated that a new medium does not eliminate an older one, but rather requires the older medium to redefine itself, to find a new niche, as radio did after television was introduced.

In other words, McLuhan said that a new medium does not cause an older medium to disappear, but rather to redefine itself, and he also said that when a medium becomes obsolescent, it becomes an art form. 

Moreover, I think it's clear to see that we will eventually have chips in our bodies, and that we're not that far off from it. And the thing about Socrates is that he was right, the more we rely on writing, the less we develop our memories, and it's use it or lose it. And with Google searches, memory atrophies even further.

This is not to say that we should abandon all hope, but we do need to understand what we're up against, in our efforts to preserve at least some of the civilization that brought us to this point. Otherwise, maybe we will find ourselves, among other things, texting ourselves to death.


Babette Babich said...

Hi Lance,
great expanded discussion of Tom's article!

i invited Maurizio Ferraris to speak to the students in my new Philosophy and Media class. It was a nice talk and the students were very engaged by it. It'd be great if you might review his new book, out ths August by Fordham University Press, Where Are You? An Ontology of the Cell Phone.

Of course I wouldn't quite say that people "fear" new technology, whether in antiquity or the present day... People were 't afraid of writing, they simply overstated its virtues and advantages. Nor was anyone ever afraid to learn to program their VCR ia generation ago, they were simply too lazy to bother (one might say that the iPad and YouTube could be regarded as ithe industry amswer to thaz indolence.

Happy Midsummer!


Lance Strate said...

Thank you, Babette. And if I receive a copy of his book, I'll be happy to take a look at it, and maybe it should also be submitted to the Media Ecology Association for consideration for its annual book awards.

Mike Plugh said...

Just seeing this via Fordham's Twitter account and a well-placed Lance retweet. I'm struck by a few things:

1. The assertion that “If you can use your living voice, why would you use dead letters?” Ferraris asked. “Because we don’t like the voice.”

This fails to make the distinction between our embodied voice and the disembodied voice of the telephone. We still very much love and need our voices as they generate the entire mess of things we externalize in our various media. We don't much love our disembodied voice because it requires a personal investment. Text is emotionally easier, which is also why it's the source of confusion when emotion is required in softening the message. So-called "dead letters" are excellent for detachment. This is part of the problem when it comes to relationships, which are defined by their quality of attachment.

2. Recordability is an important characteristic of texting, but electricity renders electronic text more ephemeral than print. Print doesn't go anywhere unless the whole interface goes along too. There is a time-bias inherent in electronic text, but mostly the messages are forgotten. They're disposable. They're mainly intended for the moment and not the duration. I would hazard a bet that 99% of text communication is never retrieved.

3. Smart phones are composing machines. Yes, they're writing machines, but only insofar as writing is an act of composition. The trick is, the device is a communication tool and structures utterance in a variety of forms. If you loosely associate writing with composing photographs, you find yourself in the camp of media literacies, but we know the lay of that minefield at this point. The most significant aspect of these technologies is the convergence of all older forms of media....which leads me to my last thought...

4. The "chips in our brains" thing is already real. We can already implant chips that allow people with physical challenges to type letters and words onto a computer screen just by thinking them. I'd wager we can do more than that by now. The chips in the brain thing, though, seems beside the point to me. The cybernetic relationship we enjoy with technology is responsible for our changing memories and shifting perspectives. The extensional quality and the narcissus narcosis are general phenomena. The N. Katherine Hayles "post-human" thesis seems to apply here, and I think Paul Levinson's "human replay" as well. Whatever silly excitement we have over "wearable tech" and smartphones is a distraction. The real action is the move towards a more native interface with technology, which probably is more sophisticated than a chip in the brain, but isn't likely all that far away either.

The battle that rages between modes of communication is a battle of intimacy vs. distance. Casualness vs. formality. Impression vs. Intellect. We constantly moves between these modes. Technologies that work towards or against those particular biases are located intuitively and put to work. Lost in that process, though, is the Faustian bargain. In an increasingly closer environment, thanks to electricity, we crave a little distance. The text is what we intuitively reach for as a remedy. The result is that we base our relationships on an increasingly distancing form of communication (text) and lose the closeness of our oral tradition.

This is the reason that I always share a caveat when talking about the redefinition of public and private life. We must have privacy. Even tribal people found their own version of privacy. It may be different, but we need it psychologically. If texting is the stealing back of some form of privacy, it's the nature of the old medium that's doing it on behalf of the new medium of intimacy.

I don't know where I'm going with this anymore, so I'm going to stop. <----typing that is a nod to the externalizing of my inner dialogue <---this too....