From Well-Read to Spoon-Fed: The Death of Communication in the Communication Era

by Jennifer Pitcock

"Do you expect me to read all that?!"

That?s the question I?ve probably heard more often in online community forums than any other question in the history of questiondom. It seems that, for the vast majority of forum readers and posters, any post longer than two sentences gives immediate attacks of migraines and sudden onsets of ADD. Granted, I do tend to write quite a lot--I?m infamous for my Epic Posts (tm) which string together anywhere from three to thirteen (my current record) fully-packed posts into one super-uber-mega post--but the level of utter impatience and unwillingness to read even a little bit paints an incredibly discouraging picture of Generations X and Y.

What I find most fascinating is that in this new era, tentatively titled both the Information Age and the Communication Age, young people growing up in this era seem the most unwilling to take in new information (unless it comes in the form of an easily digestible music video or a super-trendy cable documentary of a guy with a neat accent pissing off crocs for an hour), and level of communication in the Communication Age seems to be degrading, making that era name a little too ironic for my comfort.

The internet, even with its Flash web content and its snazzy graphics and the lightning-fast broadband connections to download it all at eye-blink speed, is still primarily a textual medium--e-communication, by its very definition, is text-based. We have e-mail (which is text), chat rooms (which are text), instant messaging (which is text), message boards (which are text), and, of course--the lifeblood of the internet--websites (which, no matter how much Macromedia or Dreamweaver or PhotoShop play a part, are still primarily text). But the more a fixture the internet becomes, and the more children and adolescents grow toward adulthood surfing its ubiquitous tides, the less tolerant of text they seem to become. They want an idea summed up in ten words or less, no matter how much is lost or how useless the idea becomes when dumbed-down and trickled out to that bite-sized a level. They want ideas fed to them, instead of having to exert a bit of effort to attain them (even the simple and readily available effort of just reading--an ability they ought to be thankful for, considering how extremely widespread illiteracy used to be even just less than a century ago).

On top of this, the impatient, "I want it right now in ten words or less" people have begun to develop a marked impatience with words themselves. They can?t be bothered to type out the three full letters of the word "you" when one keystroke will give them "u," and a five-letter word like "later" positively gives them fits, so they throw in a number and get "l8r" in just three keystrokes. Cutesy internet slang like this is fine in small doses, and certain well-known acronyms like BTW ("by the way"), LOL ("laughing out loud"), and BRB ("be right back") can indeed be helpful, especially in chatrooms and instant messages, where speed of reply can be important, but to habitually type out whole sentences and paragraphs entirely in Net-slang is a bit ridiculous--not to mention far more of a head-ache inducer than my trademark epic posts.

Yet it seems that Net slang abbreviations are becoming increasingly prevalent with the ever-impatient children of the Communication Age, so that most of them now seem to have entirely forgotten how to write in actual English sentences; and when they do try to write in actual English sentences, they often produce messages so unintelligible they?re positively maddening. And as an English major seeking a B.A. in English myself, that makes me very sad indeed.

I simply have to wonder at the state of humanity when in a text-driven form of communication, most people can?t be bothered to read more than a few lines of text at a time. It has been theorized that e-mail and other internet communication is bringing about the speedy death of the art of letter-writing, and I have to wonder if perhaps, as the symptoms seem to indicate, an even larger death is actually imminent: the death of communication itself. How useful is communication when the listeners are too impatient to hear the whole of the message? How precise is communication when the audience demands that it be dumbed-down, wrung-out, and pre-chewed for them down to the bare skeleton of the idea being conveyed? We may be gaining efficiency, but we?re losing far more--nuance, feeling, precision, and completeness, among countless other things. And the efficiency we seem to be gaining might only be a façade, while we?re actually losing it instead.

I?m reminded of an episode of King of the Hill that I recently watched, in which there was a severe drought and all of Arlen, TX had to ration water. Our protagonist, Hank Hill, opts to install new low-flow toilets in his home because they supposedly use half the water the older high-flow ones use, which--in theory--seems like a much more efficient arrangement. Hank soon discovers, however, that it takes five, six, seven flushes to completely remove waste from the toilet, and since just two flushes per visit would already bring him back to the water usage he was at before, he realizes quite rightly that what seemed to be a wonderfully efficient solution has turned out to be far less efficient than the old way, simply because of the effectiveness lost with the new solution.

I see much the same thing happening with our new "efficient" internet speak--it takes many more words and many more messages to fully get our ideas across, and misunderstandings (sometimes to the point of inciting flame wars) are incredibly common. I honestly believe most of this could be prevented and a more efficient exchange of ideas could be made simply with a little more patience in e-communication--both with readers, and with writers.

Are we witnessing the slow death of the art of communication here in the age that bears its name? Are we watching the evolution of information from well-earned privilege to impatiently demanded right in the age that holds information as the symbol of humanity?s diligence and of humanity?s quest? I don?t know the answers, and I still hold out hope, but from where I?m standing, the future looks more like a cyberpunk vision of human beings getting information pumped straight to their brains with tubes from IV?s rather than the idyllic notion of would-be Einsteins, Edisons, and Hawkings, voraciously learning, reading, thinking, and creating new information for the next generation to learn, read, think about, and continue the cycle of knowledge.

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