Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Floating Signifiers" by Clive Thompson-- Feb/Mar '10 Bookforum


Well, I wasn't kidding you yesterday. The article in Bookforum really was gr8!

In the article "Floating Signifiers: The Internet hasn't killed the English language--yet," Clive Thompson reviews three books that examine how new technology (texting, tweeting, blogging, Facebooking--is that a verb now?--and even googling and wikis)may affect the way we write and even the way we think.
These books are Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World by Naomi Baron, Txtng: The Gr8 DB8 by David Crystal, and You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier.

Out of the three, I really want to read Baron's book in particular. Thompson quotes her statement: "Distinguishing between language change and language decline is avery tricky business." Amen! This is a topic I can discuss until people's eyes start to glaze over. The grammarian in me loves to grouse about improper word usage, but the linguist in me is even more excited about the ways that the English language has evolved over the years. (If you've ever read Beowulf, and who hasn't had to at some point, you know what I mean. It sounds less like English and more like the Swedish Chef).

Baron's "cautious optimism" appeals to me, social media butterfly that I am. According to Thompson's review, Baron proposes that a) language hasn't really changed so very much as a result of the newest technologies, at least not yet; and b)that these technologies are actually causing a resurgence in the use of the written word, that those young people typing with their thumbs are not just "texting" but generating more text than any previous generation. Baron is concerned, however, that this glut of ephemeral writing will result in a loss of appreciation for elegant, formal writing, and worse, will make us lazy thinkers in the process. She dislikes Google for that reason. Why train your mind to retain information when the answers to all your questions are only a click away?

Thompson, for his part, agrees with most of Baron's concerns, but points out that her fears about Google are strikingly similar to the worries some had about the invention of the printing press back in Gutenberg's day!

Thompson also suggests that the nature of online communication may give rise to new literary and cognitive skills, not merely degrade others. (I like his notion that the 140-character limit of Twitter, for example, is training millions in the art of concise expression)! This is the conceit behind Txting. According to Thompson, Crystal's work takes a primarily positive view about the new skills this technology encourages. Crystal applauds the use of acronyms (ROFLMAO) and short forms(ur gr8), which he compares to rebus puzzles.

You Are Not a Gadget brings up a different area of concern. Lanier fears that, rather than using social software to express our true selves, we are actually redesigning our personalities to fit the mold, reducing ourselves to a set of bullet points on a page and losing something essentially human in the process. The concept of the "hive mind" behind wikis denigrates the value of individual expression, and the anonymity provided by the Internet encourages a loss of empathy for our fellow man. Those are intriguing ideas, but, according to Thompson's review at least, are given little supporting evidence in Lanier's "manifesto."

Come by the library and read Thompson's full review in the latest Bookforum. In fact, I encourage you to browse more reviews, and one sparks your interest, come talk to us! If we don't have the book, we might be able to get it for you through interlibrary loan, and we're always open to suggestions and recommendations for the collection.

And if you have a few hours to debate with me about the decline or evolution of the English language, you know where to find me. I'll be on Facebook! TTFN, ta-ta for now!

*Thompson also mentions in his review some history about the word "hello." Did you know it gained popularity as a result of a new technology, the invention of the telephone? And that people decried the use of this "new word"? Fascinating! As they say on the interwebz, it are trufax.

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