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Soabox: Writes Of Passage

Writes of passage
Matthew Thomas
Soapbox 0045, 1999-07-25

It often happens that fame goes to the people or things which deserve it the least.

Take Rene Descartes, for example. Now he was an interesting guy. His most useful contribution to human civilization was undoubtedly his work on geometry and algebra, in that it provided a foundation for much of modern mathematics.

But that's not what he is most famous for; no, Descartes is most famous for something which doesn't really deserve to be so well-known at all. This thing is the philosophical axiom which he proposed in 1641: `cogito ergo sum', or in English, `I think, therefore I am'.

Now, it so happens that that statement was part of Descartes' attempt to put philosophy and metaphysics on a logical basis, like he had done with geometry. Trouble was, it was an attempt which largely failed. But somehow the saying lived on, and guaranteed Descartes' continued fame outside the world of mathematics.

But had Descartes lived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, rather than the late 16th and early 17th centuries, I think he might well have changed one word in his dictum. I think it would have been: `I write, therefore I am'. And I say this largely because of the existence of the Internet.

Despite the Internet's increasing use of graphics, video, sound, virtual reality models, and so on, its basic currency is, and always has been, text. The Internet is primarily something you read, not something you watch or listen to. This may change in the future, when improvements in technology allow us to shove large quantities of voice or video data around the world without worrying about how much it will cost, or how long it will take to get there. But I don't see that era arriving for at least another ten years. And in the meantime, the Internet is based on text.

And that's a lot of text. This week it was reported that British office workers with e-mail accounts receive 170 messages, on average, per day. The figure for wired USAmerican workers is over 200 messages. My own e-mailbox isn't nearly that full -- I only receive about 30 or 40 messages a day -- but the effect is still staggering. At a guess, I'd say it took me only about a year, after I got my first Internet account, to have sent and received more e-mail messages than the combined total of the number of letters and phone calls I have sent and received in my entire life.

Society has yet to adjust, I think, to the constant interruption caused by e-mail. Many people (myself included, I must admit) often feel the need to respond to an e-mail message immediately after it arrives, as much as an act of courtesy as anything else. But I think society will adjust eventually, and those expectations will change. Eventually, those message-swamped office workers will learn that it's ok to leave e-mail messages unanswered for half an hour -- just, as, I hope, people will eventually learn that if you're talking to someone in person you don't have to answer a ringing phone until you've finished your sentence.

But this huge increase in the amount of text being flung about the place has the potential to cause an even more fundamental shift in our social structure. And that is the way we create impressions. Let me explain.

One of the topics which sociologists and linguists study (and I count myself as an apprentice in both those fields) is face-to-face interaction. Face-to-face interaction is the study of how every action taken by a person, during a conversation (or even just a wordless meeting) with another person, is carefully orchestrated so as to control the social relationship between the participants. Face-to-face interaction theories explain exactly why people get embarrassed, when an interruption is acceptable and when it isn't, why people change the subject, how exactly we show deference to (or contempt for) other people, and a whole lot of other fascinating phenomena -- most of which we take part in without even realizing that we're doing so.

But on the Internet, all that gets thrown out the window.

On the Internet, you can't show agreement, or scorn, or disbelief, or lack of interest, with a simple movement of your face. For the most part, you can't interrupt people; and you can't laugh at them (and have them know that you're laughing at them), or shake their hand, or hug them. All you have is ... yes, that's right, text.

Now, Internet culture has developed a number of techniques to get around this. The most obvious of these is the emoticon, or smiley: the string of punctuation marks inserted after a sentence or phrase, which -- when looked at sideways -- gives a crude idea of a facial expression. Some people become quite adept at producing emoticons for every imaginable emotion, from sadness :-( to joy :-D, from tiredness |-( to smugness :-], from saintliness <3-) to irreverence :-P or provocation :->.

But emoticons are only a poor substitute for the real thing -- genuine face-to-face interaction. This is, incidentally, why so many executives spend money on aeroplane trips from one international city to another, so that they can meet people in person rather than making phone calls or sending a few e-mail messages. They can get a much better idea of the thinking of another person if that person's body language is in there for the seeing.

On the Internet, the lack of such body language can be disastrous -- it can cause huge arguments when sarcasm or light-heartedness isn't recognized as such. This is made worse by the partial anonymity which the Internet offers; if you are separated from your correspondent by several thousand kilometres, you're more likely to have the courage to insult them. Internet culture has even developed such insult exchanges into an art -- `flame wars'.

So, we have a problem. How can you get your point across on the Internet? How can you convince people, without body language, without speech intonation and rhythm, without any visual or auditory cues, without any of the tools normally employed by orators and politicians and spin doctors? Basically, you must be good at one thing -- writing.

Until video and voice communication becomes widespread, it will be the quality of people's writing on the Internet which determines the impression they give of themselves. When all you have is text, people will judge your intelligence, your emotion, your determinedness, and most of all your credibility, all by the clues given in your text -- a misspelling here, a poorly-constructed sentence there, and people's opinion of you can fall markedly. Indeed, it's an interesting exercise to gauge the intelligence of Members of Parliament simply by looking at their raw press releases in Scoop's Parliament and politics’ wires -- in their unvarnished state, without the translation into English by newspaper reporters and subeditors which they used to enjoy, such press releases can be very enlightening.

The same basic principle -- having your character judged by the quality of your text -- has applied to many areas in modern society for a long time: to job applications, to letters of complaint, to submissions to regional councils or select committees, anything that requires writing. But it's the Internet which is causing the explosion in the use of writing. And the disturbing thing about this is that those who don't have the writing skills will, unfortunately, be left behind.

If my school experience is anything to go by, students in New Zealand nowadays aren't taught the basics of grammar and construction nearly as much as their parents or grandparents were. And if I'm right about the importance of writing over the next decade or so, this might be more of a problem than we realise.

I guess, though, all this could be wishful thinking on my part. I tend to be good at writing (that's why I write these columns at all), but I'm not nearly as skilful when it comes to meeting people in person. So it's possible that I might just be hoping for a world which suits me.


Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).

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