June is a month for giving gifts. Between Father’s Day and all the graduations, if we’re not receiving a gift in June, it seems that at some point we’re buying one for somebody. Certain routine gift patterns emerge with each of these particular events – for instance, Fathers Day gifts are often associated with grilling accessories and silk ties. For the graduates, their gifts tend towards money, books, and supplies to prepare them for their next stage of life. And for many high-school graduates who are going on to college, many are getting some communication or technology device to help them in school and stay in touch. Unlike those of us who graduated before 1995 however, when these fortunate graduates tear open the gift wrap, they are hoping the box says “Apple” and not “Smith-Corona”.
Mary Meeker, an influential internet analyst for Morgan Stanley, recently noted that the user interface and device evolution over the past 30 years has evolved from the typewriter, where the input was the keyboard and the user interface was text, to the personal computer, where the input is a mouse and the user interface is graphical, to the newly introduced tablet devices like Apple’s iPad, where the inputs are our own fingers, and the user interface is “touch”.
Technology is clearly moving towards more human and intuitive ways of interaction. I, for one, think that one of the great advances in the computing era is that we no longer purchase small bottles of White-Out to apply to our typing mistakes. The shrieks of agony emanating from the average college dorm at 3am these days are no longer about broken typewriter ribbons and stuck keys, but about the perils of the unsaved document or the empty toner cartridge – which just goes to show that ink remains part of our life, much to the delight of Hewlett-Packard.
Of course, some things haven’t changed – such as the fact that no matter the input or user interface, students are still hastily writing papers which are due the next morning. And this cycle of new and old, where new technologies expose age-old human tendencies, continues unabated.
In the 19th century, two related technologies changed the world. One of them, the telegraph, enabled people to communicate urgent matters over great distances. The other – the wireless telegraph – enabled ocean vessels to communicate. In both cases, since Morse Code was the lingua franca of the new telegraph age – where the input was tapping and the user interface was a series of beeps – a premium was placed on brevity. After all, when you’re tapping out a faint signal to a distant station, you can skip the adjectives.
In my first professional job after college, I worked for an importer in the Chicago area. The company designed and sold giftware all over the world, and our products were manufactured in a number of Asian countries. Since this was in the late 1980s, we were blessed with an exciting technology called the facsimile, or as the hip and sophisticated began to refer to it, the “fax”. Of course back then, sending scanned, typewritten messages to Korea was expensive, so (once again) a premium was placed on brevity. One hundred years after the telegraph, our nightly messages to our suppliers were written in a strange short-hand which dropped most of the vowels and stuck purely to the facts.
There are those who point to all the unfiltered writing we see on the internet today and say that brevity is no longer central to the way we communicate – after all, anyone can self-publish anything at any length. However, before we get the idea that the world has changed too much, I have one word for you: Twitter.
The advent of rapid instant messaging via computer and the related communication form of text messaging via mobile device demonstrates that once again, brevity is in vogue. Twitter, the social networking and micro-blogging service, limits messages to 140 characters only, yet recently enabled people in Iran to give the mullahs in the government serious headaches during a period of political unrest.
And young people of today – being referred to as the “Millennials” by market researchers – are demonstrating the flexibility and adaptability of language as they create new ways to confuse parents and convey meaning with the minimal amount of input, which proves that the next generation is every bit as clever and innovative as the communication pioneers of the 19th century. In fact, the Millenials have huge advantage over those early inventors since their source of innovation is no longer limited to one person in a basement, but millions of people around the world who are communicating, changing and adapting together every day.
The world is changing. Language is changing. But people are the same, and frankly, I think it’s gr8.
Published June 2010.