The Brevity of Technology

Chris Fischer writes in his LiveJournal that he received an email where his boss, an educated man, sent him a terse four word email that looked like it had been composed on a cell phone.  Chris, a master at human observation, expounds on five thoughts relating to brevity.

Here I add my own observations, noting the technology has a greater influce over our habits than perhaps we first give it credit for.

In the latest book by O’Reilly press, Mind Performance Hacks, chapter 2 provides three tables in which, if you memorize and use, result in your ability to physically write, or type, faster.  The trick?  Use ‘c’ for “see”, ‘u’ for “you”, ‘t’ for “the”, and so forth.  This macro-based compression little language exists so that one doesn’t have to type out the full words while note taking.  But, let’s emphasize that last part: while note taking.  It isn’t intended for generic human consumption, just as shorthand is better transcribed back to English.

What I suspect we’re seeing is actually the bleeding of thought across media.  When I compose an email or a text message, I don’t think any differently.  However, I will alter my behavior patterns to address short comings of a device.

A cell phone represents a very clunky interface that is difficult to type on.  Additionally, the phone company seems to want to charge per character (keep messages short) or per message (maximize as much content into a small envelope = abbreviate).  Either way, the device conditions us to chuck vowels, trim letters, make clever substitutions, or toss words.

Another problem exists, and that’s at the opposite end of the scale.  A device can be too efficient.  Take a Palm Pilot for instance.  A capital ‘E’ turns from four discrete strokes into a single gesture that resembles a backwards three.  The problem is we spend so much time using the device that it usurps the correct behavior, conditioning us to do it in a manner more efficient for the device to process, and we’re rewarded by speed improvements and higher reliability of letter detection.
As such, watch an engineer write on a whiteboard, and almost always you can tell which ones own and heavily use PDAs.  The tool alters the way we work, and eventually our automatic behavior of what an ‘E’ should look like.

One might be able to argue that, just as a PDA alters our habitual representative alphabet, a cell phone alters our habitual semantical notations.  Because what we see corresponds to what we’re thinking, we don’t notice that the syntax might not be necessary, or even appropriate, for the medium being used.  In fact, medium has become so transparent to the end user, it wasn’t until just now that I realized I wasn’t writing with a feathered quill and India ink.

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One Response to The Brevity of Technology

  1. Ellen says:

    Sudden I feel inadequate using my cell phone earlier

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