Sunday, February 19, 2006

Science Confirms What We Knew All Along

According to an excellent review of new research in Wired, the average user has a not-much-better than chance likelihood of guessing at an email's tone. In other words, the way you meant to sound and the way you end up sounding, in an email, are both almost unrelated.

I've known this for a long time, mostly because my conversational style involves a fairly heavy dose of sarcasm, which (absent facial expressions and shifts in vocal tone) have often been interpreted by my readers as outright attacks. I've had friendships shaken and made enemies out of acquaintances because I worded things wrong in digital communication, and as such, I've become quite paranoid about it. It's reassuring, at some level, to see that the fault is not in myself, but in humanity in general.

My blog is much the same. I'm never sure whether my angry screed sounds sarcastic, or how much my sarcastic screed sounds angry. The problem, I suppose, has to do with lack of feedback. Many people who are old hands at this sort of thing are able to (I think) more clearly contrast their irony from their outrage, largely thanks to a painful trial-and-error process of offending people and adjusting their style accordingly.

I doubt many are "naturals" at this sort of thing, because there's something deeply unnatural about communicating solely through words. To make matters worse, the speed at which we can type has radically reduced the amount of consideration we give our words. When Neal Stephenson wrote the Baroque Cycle, he wrote the manuscript by hand because, he posited, the major shift in literary style from the 19th to the 20th century is largely a result of the sudden ubiquity of typewriters. In the old days of the postal service, everyone wrote by hand, which not only meant you had to actually scrawl the words, but also that it couldn't be sent instantly. People could stop, reflect, decide not to send the letter at all, etc. Now, emails and blog posts are often impulsive, written stream-of-consciousness as fast as the person in question can type. Emails are especially unforgiving, as once the "send" button is pressed, the message can't be aborted (short of the illegal and immoral task of sneaking into the recipient's inbox to delete it).

I'm not different, mind you. I occasionally go back and re-word things, but these posts aren't being conceived in drafts, with revisions of the core text. It's like I'm talking into a mic, with a 30-second delay for editorial control. I guess it's all part of the growing theme that the Information Age we now live in is about data, not content. There's more information, but not better understanding, so the influx largely fuels a general sort of digital chaos, which is diverted and dampened but never eliminated by a handful of control mechanisms.

In the midst of these discoveries, the revelation that one of the most powerful men in the country simply doesn't use email is also disturbing. On the plus side, it potentially reduces levels of misunderstanding at the highest echelons. But the downside, I think, is a lot more serious. It's a form of covering one's ass, a sense by the administration that transparency is bad because it opens them to attack, as if the possibility that someone might object to your course of action is the strongest reason to conceal it.

The huge irony here is that, while steadfastly refusing to employ email, Rumsfeld just made a statement about how out of date America is. Of course, in the same statement, he alluded to the distribution of the Abu Ghraib photos through the media, as if to imply that the way in which they spread was a sign of (a) the Pentagon's inability to control the media and (b) the subversive elements of society (including the "Enemy") fueling the fire. All told, it's a subtle, clever move. It fuels the "Media as Corrupted by Liberals and Extremists" myth, as well as subtly implying that while America must embrace technology, those who have already done so are more likely to be the enemy.

But few people are going to place Rumsfeld's statements in the context of a person who, while lamenting the "five-and-dime" nature of the Department of Defense, still abstains from email. The truth is that Rumsfeld probably doesn't want to adapt at a personal level - he sees such adaptation as a strategic move, not a change in the way people communicate at a lifestyle level. The contrast between Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara (America's last Secretary-Of-Defense-During-Entrenched-Occupation) is marked, given McNamara's genuine reforms in the DoD. Rumsfeld is happy to tell the press that we're living in the world of perpetual threat "24" depicts, but he may as well still be in the administration of Gerald Ford, given his technological intransigence.

I mean, seriously: if Rumsfeld is going to believe whatever faulty intel he gets handed (as long as it fits his worldview), does it really matter if he's managing to avoid getting into flame wars?

According to another article in Wired, instantaneous communication may also be helping Americ'as youth get really bad at spelling and grammar. Because, you know, typos are 1337. Frankly I'm inclined to agree. After all, without bad spelling, would anyone have ever been "pwned?"


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