One of the biggest victories for the new media is the relegation of language as performance to language purely as thought, purely as an abstract medium. Maybe it’s not a total progress if we look at where we came from (in fact, it could be a form of regression), but the result is a total transformation of old systems into even older ones (in the garb of new shiny ones) where language becomes relevant only as a tool, and no longer as an activity.
I’ll break it down.
Prehistoric man as I imagine him lived only on grunts, brute behaviour, and the subliminal expectation that those around him understood every of his actions as relating to certain demands or requests, as many who ended up on the blunt side of his club found out. Language however brought clarity, and thus sophistication, and a need for a more active set of rules with which everyone negotiated the rote of existence. Our tongues adapted to the needs of our mind, and the mouth became not just a hole for food consumption but for actual articulation of speech. It has been a long time since then.
I’ve been thinking about the benefits of new media – technology, mostly – if you could call them benefits, and how it has returned us to silence and the rote of hand movements. The image here is of a couch in a public park on which two teenagers sit, each using an iPhone and texting (either each other, or others. It doesn’t matter). An alien looking at them might – if s/he is aware of our earlier methods of communication – conclude that humans have finally given up on talking to each other, in favour of more effortless means of interaction: sitting side-by-side. A more discerning alien may however find out that our new means of communication includes hand gestures – not of the usual, traditional kind that you’d find between two deaf humans, but those between the thumb and a mobile touchscreen. All around the globe as I convey these thoughts to you using the same means of mute finger-based thought transmission processes, millions of other people are doing the same, some – like me – while also staring at a live picture of another human being located thousands of miles away in another continent. None of us is “talking”, at least not to each other at the moment, yet our fingers keep moving, and thoughts move between us.
It is not inconceivable that when man discovered language and found that it was much easier to talk one’s way out of a threatening gesture of a spiked club pointed by a bigger man with a menacing eye than simply running away or bending in obeisance, he never thought that evolving into more sophisticated means of communication will one day lead back to a different culture of silence. On the bright side, the process evolved through a fascinating period that showed us (from Alexander Bell’s telephone to the telex, fax and then email), the many creative ways of staying far away from each other and still get our points across. As for the fallout of our evolution, we may not end up being physically fitter for it – not needing to move our jaws as much anymore except for eating – but we can at least fool all earth-bound aliens that we’re not communicating to each other whenever we sit idly at our desks and stare at the screens.
Maybe that’s how ants and other lower animals have managed to fool us all these years.