NYT says Tech is Changing our Brains, but What About our Language?

Posted on August 26, 2010. Filed under: JumpPost, startups, venture capital | Tags: , , , |

Our language is changing.  Words like “OMG,” “LOL” and “TTYL” that were spawned within a digital environment out of constraints translating verbal thoughts into online communication (the primary constraint being effort of typing), have somehow managed to cross the chasm from internet vernacular into physical world verbal communication.  They have taken on a meaning that is distinct from the longer string of words which they were created to represent, and we have recognized them as enhancements in our person-to-person communication.  They describe a concept, or feeling, or action that is more applicable to a given use case than any combination of letters and sounds that existed prior to their creation, and thus they have penetrated our lexicon.

The words “Text” and “cloud” have existed for centuries, but have taken alternate meanings in light of our relationship and engagement with technologies like SMS and Data.  The phrase “text me” (or the use of text as a verb) alone, occurs in a frequency that I’m guessing has supplanted any other definition as the primary use of the word if we are measuring by volume utterance across contexts.  “Cloud” on the other hand, as a reference to hosted data storage has penetrated small circles of tech-savvy consumers, but it may be 3, 5, or 10 years before general population’s concept of “the cloud” grows to the point where this usage will truly enhance our day to day experience in a way that is competitive with the value derived from describing a puffy white object that holds rain in the sky.

What I find fascinating, is that while our relationship with the internet and technology more broadly is redefining how we communicate with each other in it’s absence (changing our offline language structures), I do not see the same language change in our non-verbal communication patterns.  Where did the “thumbs up” come from and how did it grow to represent approval or “good job.”  How did a forefinger and a thumb come to signal “ok?”  Was that a crossover from sign language which developed an application that was worthy of general population usage (like OMG, or LOL)?  That would be an instance of a language created through a set of constraints (hearing impairment) penetrating a non-constrained environment.  What about a wink or a smile, or any of the other physical gestures that countless online companies have tried to recreate on the web (Facebook poke, digital gifting, etc…)?  We spend an increasing volume of our time with head tilted downward, eyes on screen, two thumbs on mobile device.  Is there really not a set of non-verbal gestures that recognizes or applies to the fact that at any given moment 20-30% of the people we are surrounded by are engaged in this physical position and action?  What about prompts for people to take this position when they are not in it?

The reason I ask how these physical gestures came into prominence, is because I see a new set of constraints in our communication for which adaptation of our physical non-verbal communication would strongly enhance our experience.  Specifically, there is a set of use cases around real time mobile communications with people in physical proximity that requires multi-person synchronous or asynchronous engagement with an application or technology.  The best way I can think of to open up that use case is to graft these applications to physical world non-verbal gestures (either existent or new).  And what I don’t know is whether this type of communication is so slow to adapt that we shouldn’t even bother exploring it??  Anyone studied this?  Isn’t linguistics a major in college?  I’ll take you to good dinner if you can educate me here.  And if you happen to be Product/UX minded, we can even splurge on dessert.

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3 Responses to “NYT says Tech is Changing our Brains, but What About our Language?”

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I loved the title. Really, I don’t like the way language is changing. I hope there would be a u-turn. 😦

heh, interesting that you have a positive or negative feeling about the direction of language evolution. I don’t ascribe a value to the change

While I have no real background in this, I believe physical gestures are a result of the inability to effectively communicate using words and our own desires to speed up the rate we consume data. When traveling in countries where I do not speak the language, making gestures, even small ones like a smirk or frown, carry a lot of weight and generally convey feelings and thoughts that could not otherwise be expressed. Its easier to throw a thumbs up than to try and learn how to say “its good” in several languages.

This topic reminds me (a bit and this is also a bit off-topic) of a web-comic discussing the differences between Huxley vs Orwell (really Brave New World vs 1984) found here – http://www.prosebeforehos.com/image-of-the-day/08/24/huxley-vs-orwell-infinite-distraction-or-government-oppression/

(and apparently its an adaption of some other work – http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/014303653X?ie=UTF8&tag=probefhos-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=014303653X )


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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I think there is one metric that can be used to measure the value of a human life and that’s impact. How did you change things? How many people did you touch? How different is the world because you lived in it and how positive was the change that you affected? (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it) You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com

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