Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My natural progression from the written word to the digital sphere

Some months ago I was required to write a final essay for my first-year university subject Writing Ecologies detailing my experiences with technology and literature throughout my life. At first I thought it would be easy. After all, I was not only writing about myself (as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am quite an expert on the topic and not at all averse to showing it) but incorporating a particular aspect of my life which has had often significant effects on me. Then I thought it would be difficult. After all, this was not a navel gazing memoir I had been charged with but an academic essay incorporating the varied opinions of true experts as well as my own musings. Like many things in life the writing of the piece proved both challenging and rewarding in terms of how easily some sections flowed from brain to purposefully typing fingers. Once submitted, marked and returned the essay could have simply disappeared into the oblivion that is my overflowing home desk. Yet today I found the original copy on my laptop and thought, hey, why should my six pages of hard work be limited in audience to a couple of university lecturers? So here it is, almost in full (I tweaked a few things; somehow phrases which seemed perfect before now seem clumsy), including references. I certainly would not recommend reading all of the quoted commentators for yourself, and that's not just because I object to being labelled as a member of an 'increasingly illiterate generation'. I do hope however that you find something of interest in these paragraphs, even if it is only to reminisce on your own childish introductions to technology.
And so, without further ado...

My natural progression from the written word to the digital sphere
It is difficult to remember a time when the written word was not important in my life. Early childhood was filled first with the joy of being read to and the magic of falling into another world through literature. Learning to read these texts for myself opened more doors and introduced me to the euphoric feelings associated with the power to lose oneself in simple printed words on a page. Then came access to a computer and with it the realisation that illustrations in books weren’t the only images available and many of these could be created with a few digital programs.
Now it is difficult to remember a time when the use of digital technology was not the norm. Like reading and writing, in my memory there is no clear moment of introduction. Text, digital and printed, has simply always been there. Changes have occurred as developments have brought in different ways of doing things but the formula essentially remains the same: the written word provides a wealth of emotion and the ability to chronicle our experiences in life. Yet we must ask ourselves, what is the written word? Does the term only refer to printed text on a paper page? If this is the case then it would seem possible that ‘writing’ will very soon be something only referred to in the history books. Or perhaps, as many children of the digital age seem to feel, the written word is evolving to include those words that have not yet been printed. Those phrases that wait in the digital cloud for us to recognise them as a literature just as pure as the traditional book.

Like any other year 1994 was a mix of exciting firsts and forgettable continuations. It was a largely ordinary year, highlighted by events such as the release of Disney’s The Lion King and former President of the United States of America Ronald Reagan’s announcement as a sufferer of Alzheimer’s. It was the year of my birth and as such the year I was brought into the technological age, so it is fitting that the month of my birth also played host to the first International World Wide Web Conference, entirely devoted to discussing the commercial value of the World Wide Web, in San Francisco, USA.

Although I say I was born into a world of technology I wasn’t a precocious toddler touch-typing on the family desktop computer. Some of my earliest memories are of books, books everywhere: books filling shelves in almost every room, books being read aloud. Drawing was also a key element, with colouring books and pieces of paper covered with brightly coloured crayon blobs all over the house. The computer was always there as both the adults of the house used them for work but my parents were always more focused on getting me to read widely and enjoy the written word the way they did.

I probably used them at an earlier stage but my first clear recollections of using computers came with my progression through primary school. Typing up projects and reports were eclipsed in my desires by the Microsoft application Paint. Many hours were spent drawing squiggles and testing out the ‘spray paint’ tool. Looking back now these digital experiments, which I always demanded be praised by my parents, were really a natural progression of my desire to create. The computer offered a different way of constructing essentially the same images I had drawn on paper.

With adolescence came the joys of computer gaming, with applications such as The Sims and World of Warcraft fascinating me with their three-dimensional graphics and ability to personalise creations. The stories I could create in these games seemed so much wider and better developed than those I could create on paper. I wasn’t simply describing what I imagined but creating it in a way that others could see and understand.

As I grew older still the attraction of the Internet and the audience it gave me access to increased and necessitated membership to social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. The ability to converse so easily with friends and family drew me in and the desire to feel involved resulted in a frenzy of status updating. Similarly, although keeping a diary had never held much allure, the culture of blogging fascinated me. It had always seemed useless to me to keep a journal of mundane everyday activities but blogging encouraged my argumentative nature and desire to communicate as I held the belief that someday someone other than my parents might read and respond to my words favourably.

Bradley (2010) states that “the online writer has at his/her disposal the most versatile storytelling platform ever” as the Internet, “allows the seamless integration of the written word, sound vision, and motion”. The attraction of this wide range of entertainment and creative outlets is obvious and sets the stage for the change in culture, communication and language that has become particularly noticeable during the 21st century.

Kaiser (2011) stated that the proficiency of new technologies meant, “improved ways of communicating are mainstreamed into our society”. This is certainly the case with my experiences. How often have members of previous generations noted how comfortable members of my generation are with digital technologies? Even those like me who by no means consider themselves experts in the digital field are able to perform basic functions with very little thought or planning. Most of us have grown up with at least one computer in the house. Public school students of my age all received government laptops in 2009 and now there seem to be few academic courses or job opportunities that do not require at least a base form of computer literacy. You could be forgiven for being swept up in the excitement of the ever-developing world of digital literacy and agreeing with Stommel (2012) that “the capacity for something wondrous is upon us” in terms of how we communicate.

If we only used computer programs to collate data and perform mathematically based functions perhaps there would not be such a strong argument for computers as destroyers of language. It stands to reason that a change in writing formatting from pen and paper to typing digital documents would inevitably result in a change in writing style.
Porter (2002) asks the question “How much do these computer-based writing technologies really matter in terms of their effects on writing?”
It would be easy to claim that the digital shorthand developed by computer users to make conversations more concise is damaging traditional language. In the extreme, the language of digital technologies seemingly bears little resemblance to arguably antiquated speech. Kaseniemi and Rautiainen (2002) note that mobile phone text messages in particular bear “more resemblance to code than to standard language”. Full of contractions and other simplified terms the language widely used in communication via 21st century technology bears little resemblance to traditional spelling yet follows the same basic structure. As Thurlow (2001) points out the language of ‘netspeak’ or ‘webspeak’, which began to rear its head among Internet conversers in the early-2000s, is a way of communicating favoured by teenagers and young adults due to their comparatively greater use of digital communication than previous generations. As a member of this community of young people I can attest to the allure of quick and easy communication. Unlike our parents and grandparents we have not grown up with handwritten letters and phone calls to and from single landline telephones. Instead, we have been exposed to the relative swiftness and convenience of communication via email, text messaging and social networking.

Crystal (2006) said that communication on the Internet and via mobile phone text messages displayed “much of the urgency and energetic force which is characteristic of face-to-face conversation”. When communication through 21st century technology can feasibly be as fast-paced as in-person discussions much of the formality of older forms of communication is omitted in favour of colloquial and contracted terms.
It is through this that Porter’s (2002) questioning of the significance of digitally mediated language becomes appropriate. As previously stated, language will inevitably change with the development of new ways of communicating. Being born into this digital age of convenience necessitates a desire to communicate in a correspondingly rapid fashion, yet this truncated form of conversation is not necessarily a negative by-product of computer-based development.

Stommel (2012) claims that digital shorthand such as that used in emails “fails to live up to the grammatical standards of typed or handwritten letters”. He goes on to argue that the prevalence of ‘netspeak’ among young people has rendered many members of this generation “terrified” of writing academic papers. The language style used for everyday digital communication is undoubtedly radically different to that used in academic writing, but does that therefore make it a problem? The outlets available for digital 21st century communication are not restricted to the polar opposites identified by Stommel (2012). Between social networking and academic papers there are a wealth of opportunities for contributions to writing which incorporate both modern abbreviations and traditional sentence structure. The growth of creative text outlets such as blogs and personalised webpages often produce a style of writing which is intelligently phrased but with personal, colloquial touches as per the culture of these mediums. This makes me inclined to agree with Porter (2002) that contrary to Stommel’s (2012) assessment, as well as that of Crystal (2008, as cited in Stommel, 2012) who argues that new forms of communication are “harming language as a whole”, the personal computer and its programs “is simply one more writing tool, like the pencil, that aid the writing process but doesn’t revolusionise it” (Porter, 2002).

The idea that young people want to learn and communicate in a way that incorporates their changing environments is not a new one. In 1970 Margaret Mead noted that the forms of education children considered most useful in preparing them to operate successfully as adults were those who largely depended on the changes in the culture around them. This is another argument that suggests that the increasing use of computers, particularly by young people, does not herald the end of language and the written word. In order to successfully abbreviate and condense information into the modern digital language the writer must initially understand the words and the meaning of the phrases they are condensing. In this way knowledge of traditional language is needed to communicate via digital mediums. This theory is noted in a similar fashion in the study noted by deVoss, Hawisher, Jackson, Johansen, Moraski and Selfe (2004), which found that children born into this age of “new media…have all developed considerable skill and success in conventional education settings and literacy environments”. Online gaming and social networking may be conducted in a different form of language to lessons in the classroom, but no more than children of the past adopted a form of shorthand when playing games outside. The effect of digital communication on academic literacy need not be substantial.

The world of literacy is changing. Developing technologies have changed so quickly over such a short period of time. In my own short life to date I have seen and experienced technologies such as the hard drive, VCR players and cassette tapes, all objects which my eight-year-old cousin has never known.  The way I communicate now is very different to the way I communicated as a child. Not only do I now communicate through computer-based mediums such as social media and this very blog, I also write amateur academic papers and converse face-to-face. The language used for each of these fields of communication is different but that doesn’t make one any more or less valid than another. Although it appears simplified much of the language presented on the Internet is as important and informative a form of literature as the traditional printed word. It is this that encourages us not to dismiss the typed word. Just because it is floating above our heads in a digital ‘cloud’ doesn’t make it less important, it just makes it different.

Bradley, S. D. (2010). Narrative theory. In C. Baehr & B. Schaller, Writing for the Internet: A guide to real communication in virtual space (pp. 81-93). Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press.

Crystal, D. (2006). The language of netspeak. In Language and the internet (2nd ed., pp. 31-39). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

deVoss, D., Hawisher, G. E., Jackson, C., Johansen, J., Moraski, B., & Selfe, C. L. (2004). The future of literacy. In C. L. Selfe & G. E. Hawisher, Literate lives in the Information Age: Narratives of literacy from the United States (pp. 183-210). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Herman, I. (2009). International World Wide Web Conferences (“WWW2000X”). Retrieved via http://www.w3.org/Conferences/Overview-WWW.html

Kaiser, B. A. (2011). Text lingo as idiosyncratic communication: The new frontier of dramatic interaction. Ojela: Ohio Journal of English Language Arts, 51 (2), 15.

Kaseniemi, E. and Rautianien, P. (2002). Mobile culture of children and teenagers in Finland. In Katz, J. E. & Aakhus, M. (eds.). Perpetual contact. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mead, M. (1970). Culture & commitment: The new relationships between the generations in the 1970s. Columbia University Press, New York.

Porter, J. (2002). Why technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter's tale. Computers and Composition, 20(4), 375-394.

Reagan, R. (1994). Text of a letter written to the American public announcing his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved via http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/alzheimerletter.html

Stommel, J. (2012). The Twitter essay. Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Teaching and Technology. Retrieved via http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Twitter_and_the_student2point0.html

Thurlow, C. (2001). Generation txt? The sociolinguistics of young people’s text-messaging. Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle. Retrieved via http://faculty.washington.edu/thurlow/research/papers/Thurlow&Brown%282003%29.htm