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The obliquity of the elliptic

28 May 2013

These days you don’t often hear “Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance”: not because decimalisation has converted 3s. 4d. to the rather less glamorous 17 pence (while inflation has had an even less glamorous effect on its purchasing power), nor because we have abolished warfare (though the trenches in Afghanistan are probably drier than those in the Somme), but because the digital revolution has eliminated the degradation of information during transmission. Digital messages can pass almost indefinitely without corruption in a process closer to the replication of DNA than the passage of oral messages from one soldier to the next. For younger readers, the original message was “send reinforcements, we are going to advance” (the example was not intended to illustrate Freudian wish-fulfilment, although the good night out available in 1916 for 3s. 4d. was no doubt preferable to going over the top).

But does that mean that we are communicating better?

Not necessarily. The means to communicate electronically more rapidly and more remotely has been accompanied by a commensurate reduction in traditional forms of communication – face to face or by telephone – which provided immediate and subtle feedback, the now-redundant mechanism by which civilisation corrected messages before the corruption spread. As Voltaire wrote to Mme du Deffand (15 mars 1769):

On se met sans peine au ton de ceux à qui on parle; il n’en est pas de même quand on a écrit; c’est un hasard si l’on rencontre juste.

So when our casual thoughts are retransmitted by followers’ followers and reach a vastly larger audience than could ever have been anticipated, in cultural and geographical contexts unimaginably removed from those in which they were created, any errors or infelicities can take on unexpected dimensions.

This is a particular issue with certain social media such as Twitter, with its rigid 140 character limit (which tends to squeeze out phrases such as “in my opinion” or “on the basis of a black and white photograph, I think that…may be by…”), but can affect also text messaging and any communication created on mobile devices where keyboard restrictions in practice force us to reduce our messages more than we might traditionally have done (reversing the logorrhœic tendencies of word processing). The victims of this Procrustean process are less the torso of the creative or imaginative initial thought – that after all is what makes anything worth reading – but the outer limbs, the reservations and qualifications which moderate those thoughts and turn bold or even outrageous ideas into civilised discourse.

Sally Bercow discovered this to her cost. I don’t for a moment defend what she said, or even her right to say something of this nature. But I do worry about the chilling effect of unmodified defamation law on more borderline expression in new social media. (And I fail to see how the award of financial damages can be an appropriate remedy: this seems to be a basic category confusion in our legal system, which is scarcely better than mediaeval trial by combat.) Social media, with their focus on celebrity, encourage ordinary people to add “edge” to bland messages in the hope of attracting followers. We all say things we regret, and I have deleted at least one Tweet composed in the belief that it was clever but which on reflection might be capable of an unfortunate interpretation. (I continue to rely on, and take this opportunity to remind any readers of, my various disclaimers about attributions of pictures on Twitter.)

But along with the space limitations of Twitter-speak the bigger danger is perhaps Twitter-think, where the mental footnotes and arrières pensées disappear as well, and the sloppiness starts to affect our own thinking. I’ve mentioned some of these before.

And while I’m in blogging mode rather than Tweeting, and minded to spell everything out, I do hope any of you expecting an illiterate note on astronomy weren’t disappointed.

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From → Justice

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