A Failure to Communicate

Technology and the Destruction of Language

It is interesting to observe how technology is changing the way we communicate.  I recall the first time I saw what was then called a “car phone.”

It was on the seventies television show “The Magician” starring Bill Bixby.  Bixby’s character, Tony Blake, drove a Corvette with a phone neatly situated between the bucket seats. My brother and I thought that was cool – a Corvette and a phone.  Magicians were, apparently, in demand, and Blake was in touch.  When cellular technology became a reality for the rest of us, it would, we all reasoned, make us more efficient and give us more time to do other things.

More than a decade later, I think we can safely say that the results are mixed.  New technologies have given us a degree of freedom that once seemed impossible.  As I write, I am away from my office and can, without much difficulty, compose this article on my laptop and email it to my tech guy for posting on our website or to your mailbox.  I can send and receive email, read the newspaper, conduct overseas conferences (on video no less), follow my favorite teams, as well as a thousand other things, all from a sidewalk in the middle of nowhere, USA.  A physician who is now retired recently told me that the digital beeper revolutionized his life for the better.  Without it, he could not be away from a phone for more than a few minutes.  He couldn’t even go for a walk around his neighborhood.  Suddenly, he was liberated from this prison by a device the size of a calculator.

On the whole, however, I think that it is technology that is the master and we its slaves.  Rather than creating time for us, it has siphoned it away.  We are expected to be available at all times – nights, weekends, and holidays.  Now, the office goes with us no matter where we go.  (I recently saw a man with a cell phone clipped on the waist of his swimsuit.  That’s hardcore.)  More than two decades ago, Neil Postman, a professor of communication at NYU and an astute cultural observer, prophesied these developments in a clever little book entitled Technopoly.  Even now, the book is relevant.  What, in Postman’s view, was the evil technological innovation that had ensnared us all?  The wristwatch. (Sorry.  You’ll have to read the book.)

But there is, I fear, a much more insidious side to technology; one in which I have been both the perpetrator and the victim.  While technology offers mobility and efficiency, it is frequently purchased at the price of authentic communication.  If, for example, email was a perversion of actual handwritten letters and notes, text messages are a perversion of email.  Think about it.  Letter writing is an art.  It requires an investment of time and, as a consequence, a letter usually contains real thoughts.  These days, I feel honored to get one.  Email, by contrast, requires little time or thought.  Efficiency being the goal, proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation are often discarded.  Then came text messaging and with it, a further dumbing-down of the language with cute abbreviations and “emoticons” to depict our moods.   In ancient times, man’s first written communication was with pictographs (which cannot bear the weight of ideas) before advancing to a phonetic structure (which can).  It seems that we are returning to our primitive roots.

This “dumbing-down” has led to any number of problems.  Many young people, though tech savvy, don’t know how to write.  I don’t mean compose an essay on their laptops – although that, too, seems to be a problem – I mean that they literally don’t know how to write.  Legible cursive handwriting is almost non-existent among Generation Y.  Added to this is yet another problem: they are often poor communicators outside of their online worlds.  According to an article in The Wall Street Journal (“Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Non-Verbal Cues”, August 24, 2009), the average teenager sends 2,272 text messages per month.  They “friend” each other on Facebook and tweet on Twitter (I refuse to use either), but “live” communication is often lacking.  I know two brothers who almost never spoke to one another while living in the same house.  They emailed one another instead.  Is it any wonder that employers are finding it increasingly difficult to secure personnel who have effective communication skills?

And while youth are a convenient target, they aren’t the only ones.  I have started requiring my staff to have face-to-face meetings whenever possible, even if it means driving an hour or two to accomplish it because so much of our communication is non-verbal.  How many of you have misunderstood the meaning of others or been misunderstood by them as a result of an email or text message?  I hope you are raising your hands.  I am raising mine.  Communication is difficult enough without adding further barriers.

According to the same WSJ article mentioned above, many companies are now requiring “topless” meetings.  That is, meetings where laptops and smartphones are prohibited because people find it irresistible to check emails, weather, and sports while someone else is talking. (I am raising my hand again.)  Furthermore, these little devices have led to any number of unnecessary conflicts for the reasons cited above and because they allow us all to be more aggressive.  People hiding behind the anonymity of a screen name or dummy email address will say just about anything.  I know.  I get their emails.  I wager that very few of them would have the courage to say the same things were they standing before you.  It is like the phenomenon we call “road-rage.”  We need a similarly clever name for it.  Perhaps “techno-lunacy” or “cyber-fury” (names I have just invented) will catch on.

I am intrigued by the fact that when our God chose to reveal Himself to the world, He elected words as His vehicle to do it.  Representing Him in images was forbidden.  No, that was the way of pagan gods.  So important was language that God gave instructions that it should not be used carelessly:  “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” A higher form of thought would be required of those who sought Him.  He was to be found in His Word.  “Meditate on it day and night,” He told Joshua, “so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1)  And when this same God encoded Himself into our world by becoming a man, the Apostle John would write this curious sentence: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1)

Any currency, when there is too much of it in circulation, becomes cheap.  It is difficult these days to employ words like “awesome,” “incredible,” “amazing,” and the like because they are used frivolously.  Hence, when we really do encounter something that is, in fact, awesome, we lack the language to describe it because we have debased the currency.  There is a theological – indeed, an intellectual – corollary.  As language and communication decline, so does our ability to comprehend eternal truths.  In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that if he did not understand earthly things, how was he to understand heavenly things?  He might have been speaking of this very issue.  How often have I heard the complaint from people, Christians no less, that they do not understand the Bible.  How can this be?  It is the consequence of a subjective, image-oriented, language-destroying culture.  The God of the Bible is not to be found in our senses alone.  Rather, He invites us to meet Him, to discover Him, in His word.  “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the divisions of the soul and of the spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

© Copyright 2009 Larry A. Taunton