november 2011 | Meeting Psychology
Meetings in Cyberspace
Lol dats wkd well i fink so ne way. L8r m8
(Modern text message language translated to normal English: That’s great, well I think so anyway. See you later!)
The mystery of human language origins is the most crucial in understanding how we became uniquely human. After all, it is language that allows us to communicate with each other far more precisely than any animal can. Language enables us to formulate joint plans, to teach one another, and to learn from what others have experienced elsewhere or in the past.”
From The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond
When sitting in a hotel room in Bangkok thirty years ago, which from a historical perspective is shorter than the blink of an eye, the only way to get in touch with the folks back home was to order a phone call through the hotel switchboard. It took two to three hours before I was connected via a complex satellite system. A few years on and the switchboard had been replaced by machines. I could now make the call myself, provided of course that I knew the country and area codes. Communication took a massive stride forward with the introduction of fax machines in hotel business centres. Talking was replaced by writing and contact was now much quicker; albeit at the cost of social intercourse. All the nuances in the voices, all the background noises that form an integral part of a phone call, particularly when speaking to the children, were no longer there. But it was amazing nonetheless. The long wait at an echoing telephone with a dodgy connection was a thing of the past.
Then email made its entry. It had begun to make inroads way back in the late 1960s, but only for those with access to the primitive and extremely expensive computers of the time. The first ever email from the Swedish Prime Minister to the US President was sent in 1994. Only then were the digital networks reasonably reliable. Today, an estimated two to three million emails are sent every second of every day.
Despite rapid technological advances and massive price drops in computers and wireless networks, more and more young people are abandoning large desktop computers in favour of what are still known as mobile phones (they are phones as well of course). They text and MMS each other with thumb movements that navigate the virtual keyboard at lightning speed and they social network via Facebook and Twitter, or one of the other seemingly endless number of online meeting places. This enables them to reach not only one but an infinite number of people. Facebooking and Tweeting has enticed millions of users. Facebook reports that at the beginning of 2011 the registered number of users totalled 665 million, meaning that roughly ten percent of the world population is connected to this inter-communicative network alone.
One animal species apart from humans to have been used in research into verbal communication (animal language) is the green quenon monkey. Found in most parts of Africa, these particular monkeys were chosen for having developed relatively complex social relationships with each other. They live in groups and compete with other groups for territorial supremacy. Like many other animal species they are under constant threat from predators and have to use their ingenuity to find good food areas. The interesting thing is that the quenon have developed an intricate method of communication consisting of a variety of tonal screams and grunts, all of which convey different messages. It has been established that some screams and grunts signal the approach of dangerous predators while others tell the troop there is no danger when less dangerous predators are approaching. They have a complete tone scale: some for when humans are approaching, others for when a rival quenon from another territory is encroaching, and some that strengthen the social ties within their groups. The green quenon converse in their own way through having developed an ingenious animal language.
The first human species (Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) probably communicated using a variety of signals even more intricate than the green quenon. The question is, when during their development did our forefathers go from using sound signals to creating messages by putting together a variety of sounds containing symbolic meaning? This is a field that we know very little about, but linguistic research points to it having taken close on 500,000 years of human development for a more sophisticated, abstract and richly charged language to take shape. The Neanderthals, who suddenly disappeared as a species, could produce cave art and possessed both intellectual capacity and organisational skills. Our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, appeared around 150,000 years ago, that is to say quite recently. This more historically modern species, with even greater intellectual capacity, emerged in southern Africa and began to spread to Europe and Asia 90,000 years ago. It would, however, take much longer for a form of written language to come into use. Our ability to use writing as a means of communication only dates back some 5,000 years.
Is the development of human intelligence linked with language development? This is one field in which the majority of researchers and psychologists are probably in agreement. It is through language, not least the more advanced grammar and syntax, that humans have gradually developed their various skills. In his book Language and Mind, renowned linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky drew attention to the 17th century, the Age of Reason, “which laid the foundations for modern science, where the problems that still baffle us today were formulated with astonishing clarity.” In the upper echelons of society at that time a refined and advanced language flourished that gave rise to new cognitive structures and creative forces. Society became more complex and the language was needed for deeper reflection and analysis, and, not least, for being pioneering and highly innovative. Thoughts need language as their building blocks; without a proper language thinking becomes muddled.
It is in meetings between people that language develops substance and meaning, and it is there that the language, and with it people’s intelligence, progresses. Let us return to meetings in cyberspace. What do we actually do on Facebook and Twitter? Are these real meeting places we are talking about?
Yes, to a certain extent. We receive shorts messages or small utterances from those we call our “friends”, which in this case is a technical term. Our “friends” are made up of people we accept within the framework of that which we read and write. It is not unusual for a Facebooker to have a couple of hundred “friends”, of whom maybe only twenty percent are active Facebookers. The others have registered but remain silent. So we meet through our small online utterances, the majority of which (there are exceptions) are in a way comparable to the signalling sounds from our prehistoric period. In my experience, profound discussions in which we analyse experiences in an effort to acquire a greater understanding of what we have been part of are non-existent, possibly with the exception of the odd reference to an in-depth article. Thus, we do not examine the order of things through Facebook. Politically-founded ideas are seldom put across and therewith never discussed.
“Genuine communication is always shrouded in genuine uncertainty. I don’t really know what I’ve said before you reply and you don’t really know what you’ve said before I reply. You show me what I’ve said and I show you what you’ve said.” These are the words of Swedish Social Psychologist Johan Asplund in a paper in which he discusses the development of social skills. It’s very difficult to speak of “genuine communication” in relation to Facebook and Twitter. It does not take place there. It is too anecdotal and compressed for that. Johan Asplund would probably call it a form of asocial chattiness.
Therefore, we cannot expect these cyberspace meetings to fortify the language or the analytical intellect. We do, however, get new language constellations, but mostly as ripples on the surface of water that is becoming increasingly shallow.