Universal Translator

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cannibalizing from School (cont'd)

This second essay is what they are calling a "classification essay" -- essentially, we are asked to differentiate and explain the differences between various things.  That sounded boring, and so I decided to go a bit meta and write instead about what storytelling is really like.

I am not a particular fan of this essay, because there is so much yet left to say.  But we have a 4-page limit, and to meet that I have hacked and chopped away a lot of otherwise promising stuff.

Essay below the fold.

Our Increasingly Lame Storytelling Technologies

            I am a born storyteller in that, like everybody else, I communicate almost exclusively through narrative. Human perception is the savage editing of a vast sensory overload in order to carve out an understanding of ourselves and our world that, by necessity, will always be unique to each of us. Attempting to share that understanding requires even further editing, demanding that we omit true and relevant but less important information (“noise”) for the sake of producing a more coherent message (a “stronger signal”). Whether we realize it or not, we all try to share ourselves by crafting narratives – stories – with an eye toward achieving the best signal to noise tradeoff possible. But as technology makes the cost of spewing our stories increasingly negligible, it renders this tradeoff less critical; consequently, our storytelling signals degrade. Three of our most popular storytelling technologies demonstrate how this happens.
            One of the reasons the oldest of our stories still resonate with us is that when those stories were created no technology existed that would have made banality worth bothering with. Inscribing stelae and stone tablets must be exhausting and time consuming work. When parchment was a rarity and papyrus a treasure, words would have been forced to do double duty – for economy’s sake if no other. That is one reason our most ancient writings – the Rape of Troy, the Saga of Gilgamesh, the Fall from Grace – are so richly layered with meaning that they grip our imaginations even today.
            Although people do not usually think of writing as a “technology,” it is, in fact, the most important technology ever invented. We began with pictures, but graduated to hieroglyphs and pictograms. We then abstracted several steps more and invented marks that symbolize – not concepts – but the sounds that make up the words that represent the concepts. This was the invention of writing, and with it we gained the ability to reliably pass ideas, discoveries, thoughts, culture itself, from one generation to another – even if those generations sometimes were separated by centuries. Writing – recorded story – ultimately is the only thing that makes human progress at all possible.
            Still, several millennia would pass between the invention of recorded story and the near universality of writing. Even during all those centuries in which writing evolved and improved – passing from clay tablets to fine paper, from scrolls to codices and folios, from being the sole purview of priests and scripture to the more generalized business of civil servants and the state – it remained very much a mystery to the general population, many of whom believed that the written word possesses magical properties.
            Which, in a sense, it does. There definitely is something magic-seeming about the ability to capture an abstract idea in physical form, like mounting a butterfly under glass. Doing so conjures something inchoate and abstract out of thin air, gives it a body, and fixes it in the material world. That is the very definition of a Magician’s trick. Writing is not like the spoken word, which disappears in an instant. Writing has weight, writing has presence, writing has permanence, and that weight and that presence and that permanence gives writing a power beyond anything to which the spoken word can aspire.
            Of course, writing is also more laborious than simply talking with someone, but that is writing’s chief technological advantage. Writing invites you to take the time to really think about the story you are attempting to tell, to polish it until it sparkles, until it sings, until it says exactly what you need it to say. Of all the ways in which we communicate, writing still provides the greatest signal to noise tradeoff.  Which is why writing remains the greatest technology yet invented for the storytelling that is the only way we know to share ourselves with one other.
The Telephone
            A much less worthwhile storytelling technology is my long-time personal bane, the telephone. People are very good at communicating with each other in person. It comes so easily that we often fail to notice how important are the nonverbal aspects of face-to-face communication. We so effortlessly pick up on facial expression, body language, the movement of hands and the shifting of eyes, that sometimes we understand the speaker intends to convey the very opposite of what he or she is literally saying. We call that specific kind of messaging “irony,” and most of us can recognize it.
            But telephone technology sacrifices all the natural advantages of face-to-face storytelling for mere immediacy. On the phone, the nonverbal cues upon which we unconsciously rely disappear, and we are stuck trying to make sense only of the speaker’s words and, perhaps, the timbre of the speaker’s voice. I know – from personal experience – that speaking ironically over the phone can lead to tragic misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and have had to learn the hard way that phone conversations do not really lend themselves to subtlety, nuance, or gallows humor. As a general rule, a great deal of storytelling playfulness must be sacrificed when talking on the phone – playfulness that would have been understood and appreciated if only the conversation had been held in person.
Text Messaging
            Text messaging is the apotheosis of bad storytelling technology. It thrives on an unreflective, truncated immediacy that means little to no real thought can go into whatever text is being sent; it is a technology of mental chaff. Moreover, every text message that ever has been sent and ever will be sent was and will be, in fact, an insult. When somebody sends you a text message, the very fact they are doing so is an implicit declaration that they don’t wish to sully themselves with you. After all, if they wanted to actually commune with you it would have been far easier to call you on your phone – the same phone to which they just directed their text message. Instead, they were so repelled by the idea of having to interact with you that they elected instead to play with their thumbs for 2 minutes, laboriously pecking out a series of unintelligible abbreviations and gross spelling errors.
            Text messaging’s reduction of communication to pointless blather, unreflective immediacy, and inherent insult reveals a technology in which the noise so overwhelms the signal that it constitutes the worst communications technology yet invented.  There is no possibility of narrative in text messaging, no chance of communion, but only an endless stream of static trying oh so very hard to disguise itself as actual story.
* * *
            Of course, I understand that I probably constitute a minority of one when I decry text messaging and telephones. In the United States at what is still only the beginning of the 21st century, I seem to be alone in my disdain for that kind of stuff. But I don’t care. I don’t care, because I am sure I am right: the greatest technology ever invented to satisfy our need to tell our stories – our need to commune and share with one another – is still the written word.
            That’s the story I wanted to tell here.

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