Four errors concerning this molecular and and supple segmentarity are to be avoided. The first is axiological and consists in believing that a little suppleness is enough to make things “better.” But microfascisms are what make fascism so dangerous, and fine segmentations are as harmful as the most rigid of segments. -Deleuze & Guttari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi.
But the ability to convey tone and emotion through text, without resorting to illustration, is one of the key challenges of writing. It’s what makes someone a good writer rather than an effective artist or illustrator. And though emoticons may make it easier to convey different moods without much effort, they have limitations of their own. “You couldn’t communicate only with emoticons,” linguist John McWhorter wrote in an email. “You have to know what you’re talking about, what happened, when and so on. Emoticons don’t do that.”
Alice Robb for the New Republic unleashed another “kids these days” piece of clickbait in the name of grammarians and assorted fuddie-duddies everywhere. It must be easy to pen essays decrying an entire generation for being unable to covey emotion without illustration while having your piece lovingly bookended by nice stock photos, with a generic font on well-designed web pages. Indeed, the tone of the piece is actually softened by its surroundings and comfortably corporate setting. Robb’s division between “text” and “image” belongs to a neverland where typography and design were never considered important. Taken out of original context, McWhorter’s quote takes on new levels of no-duh-ness. People communicate with emoticons specifically because they are communicating with people who don’t need significant amounts of additional context. To say you couldn’t communicate with emoticons alone is so obvious as to be nonsense, and Robb failed to do her source any favors by shifting the quote to make such an obvious point against whippersnapper straw-people. But of course, a good grammarian will rely on the writing vs. talking defense: we normally don’t talk the way we write or vise-versa. But even then poor speaking skills and habits happen. Like emoticons, but still different, the use of vocal tics like “like” and “um” are primarily emotive, adding another layer of commentary and interpretation to otherwise dry text:
We should admire, not belittle, kids who use it [like]. Far from being banished from polite or public dialogue, their discourse markers should mark our own—they should be imported as a sign of a meticulous grasp of the truth that there is no settled truth, that all narration is subjective, that every account must always be qualified.
Adam Gopnik, The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak
Gopnik maybe overstates his case, but his defense is worthwhile. We are, after all, talking about people who are still growing up, still learning. Perhaps once they’ve been through a college grinder and gotten a good n’ proper learnin’ then they too can wield weighty words and wordplay against each other in linguistic battles of the wits as Robb would so welcome. But their innate sensitivity might get lost. It is fine to promote the use of “proper” communicative skills that are designed to carry maximum symbolic frieght to the widest number of possible readers. That is the essence of “proper” grammar: to give agreed upon guidelines for broad communications. That is, of course, not all all what texting with emoticons or a face to face conversation is about. It is a wild misplacement of communicative rules as a form of social unease:
Labov’s experiment suggests that punctilious attention to “proper” usage may come from a place of insecurity. The extreme form of this is hypercorrection, in which “a real or imagined grammatical rule is applied in an inappropriate context, so that an attempt to be ‘correct’ leads to an incorrect result.”
Katy Waldman, Does This Make Me Sound Insecure?
Robb’s essay is a form of hypercorrection. Doubly, as it is posted on Mashable, the internet k-hole of silliness for digestible smartness. When you are stuck pretending that text and text alone rules like Britannia, it is easy to forget the small things that make interpersonal communication go, both visually and otherwise. I pose my last case: a girl who smiled in a selfie at Auschwitz. If there ever would be a story that raises the ire of the stiff-backed everywhere, it is this one. But again, what is missed is that the harshest critics took what was once a small, personal communication by a young woman as a media event, as something that should follow “the rules” of propriety and journalistic excellence. They noxiously misapplied rules that had no standing in order to pass judgement:
By being completely ignorant of how some would interpret her vague digital communication (the only thing that’s obvious from her photo is that she’s happy and she’s at Auschwitz. The rest is not clear), she’s influenced a global conversation on the limits of self-involvement. Some have come to her defense, reminding us all that she’s just a kid with a dead dad who shared her love of history.
The only reason why Breanna is on the receiving end of so much hatred is because she had the audacity to smile at a concentration camp. I hate to break it to you all, but Breanna Mitchell smiling at Auschwitz is not the worst thing that ever happened at Auschwitz. I dare say that it’s not even in the top 5,000.
Dave Schilling, In Defense of Taking Selfies in Depressing Places
This is a call for a new ethics of grammar. For ignoring the rules when they don’t need to be applied. Otherwise, we will simply end up sounding like this:
It’s no surprise that millennials have embraced emoji and their pixelated cousins, emoticons. Ambiguous, superficial and cute, they’re perfectly suited to a generation that sends Hallmark e-cards ironically, circulates step-by-step guides to “being deep,” and dismisses “deep meaningful conversations” as “DMC’s.”
Don’t worry, the kids are having contextually rich DMCs. It is our job as educators, as adults, and as people who honestly care to model good grammar when need be. More importantly, we also model ethical behavior that doesn’t overstep bounds, pass poor judgement, or cause undo harm.
You could no longer read as if your life depended on it. This is the other side of the now perennial cries of the decline of reading, of the humanities, of literary culture, of all that. What psychoanalysts call the decline in symbolic efficiency is more about the decline of the repressive function that excommunicated those that read the wrong way. –McKenzie Wark, Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Communication
In other words, in the old days, if you wanted to do something—navigate to the restaurant where you’ve got a dinner reservation—you might open a web browser and search for its address. But in the post-search world of context—in which our devices know so much about us that they can guess our intentions—your phone is already displaying a route to that restaurant, as well as traffic conditions, and how long it will take you to get there, the moment you pull your phone out of your pocket. -Christoper Mims, This is What Comes After Search
This sounds pretty good. Not having to search hard is nice, but there’s a large gap between the “old days” and having less-than-relevant suggestions tossed your way and then having to re-search to overcome technology’s autocorrect of your taste in food. It’ll run really well off of information it has, and in cases of laziness or indecision, it might be helpful. But predictive technology based on your or other’s past behavior keeps us locked and repeating, and isn’t all this about “innovation”? To follow Thomas Mann’s classifications of human understanding, this is mistaking data and information for actual knowledge about a person.
It is, in fact, remarkably superficial, and even while it purports to be post-search, it is something else entirely: it is browsing. The reliance on light amounts of information and cultural/contextual shorthand is browsing at its finest. The phone browses your past and comes up with a few suggestions. The chief error in the above-imagined world is that it commits you to a decision based on a browse. This is especially problematic in today’s world:
According to the study, we’re still into “stuff” and the prospect of attaining it, but we’re too poor and tight to actually go through with it. (Those exorbitant student loans might be one reason why.) -Thomas Gorton, Fauxsumerism: Shopping for the Intern Generation
Because we can’t afford to commit. It costs too much effort, too much money, and too much gas. We enjoy browsing for things, picking them up, trying on a dozen, scanning the covers, looking at the menu in the window, and hearing a snippet. But unless we know, or someone else knows it’s for us for sure, it is an overreach. With more information, the app might tell you to just go to the grocery store and buy some bread. It still takes people to put pieces of information together in new and interesting ways to make something helpful, to build up from the initial context-building that is browsing and make it knowledge, or in some cases, art:
Artists featured in LotPW use vast landscapes of data to collect and transform digital information, visual and otherwise, into analog experience; every work in the collection is a printed expression of search engine pattern discovery. -Library of the Printed Web, About
The shift from digital to print makes concrete to shift from information to knowledge, to make random collections seem to speak, reifying it, if you will, to build up a collection to then be dispersed again, both digitally and in print. The collection of knowledge is our advantage over most machines, but also over each other:
Mr. Dutreil said that young designers lack the cultural knowledge that older brands have accrued over time. He argued that new brands are informed by a fragmented, this-and-that cultural experience. -Joe McCarthy, Emerging Brands Lack the Heritage Needed for Luxury Status
Knowledge and depth still matter. Disruption is fine and good to learn from, innovation keeps us relevant, but I’ll contend now til forever, the library, no matter what size or state, is part of a heritage luxury brand that combines the best of contextual browsing and search alongside the knowledge of its people and institutions to do one thing: pass it on.
In the late 1970s we often dined in a Roman restaurant called La Sora Lella, whose owner had a gracula religiosa, a myna bird, one of those birds that can perfectly imitate the human voice, as well as the voices of other animals. Every time I walked by the bird would greet me by saying, “Hi, how’s it going?” One time I was annoyed and replied, “You always say the same thing.” To my terror the bird said, “So do you!” It might be possible to find an explanation, but the experience was an unforgettable one. –Giorgio Agamben, with Leleand de la Durantaye