Don’t blame the messenger

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Thomas Heath / 2008

Professor Michael Shayer of King’s College London recently repeated a study first done in 1976 to test the problem-solving abilities of 800 secondary pupils. He found they’ve got better at quick-fire descriptive responses, but worse at more complex reasoning.

Text message culture is widely blamed for this ‘dumbing down’, but let’s not accuse the medium — telegrams never made us stupid. What matters is the writer’s intent. More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal felt compelled to apologise for a long letter because he hadn’t time to make it short. Being concise is hard; it takes effort to pack a tight snowball.

Texts, Twitter and other messaging services force the writer to be brief, so we inevitably use them for speed. But what happens, what has always happened, when you ration the words of a writer with creative intentions? You get poetry. Consider haikus — ancient Japanese poems with a strict format, most commonly one verse of three lines, with five syllables in the first line (re-frid-ger-ra-tor — that’s your lot) seven in the second and five in the last. They’re popular as ever today for the way they pack meaning. Ten years ago Salon magazine began a mini subculture with a competition to rewrite Microsoft’s on-screen error messages as haiku poems:

Something you entered / transcended parameters / So much is unknown.

Your file was so big / It might be very useful / But now it is gone.

Three things are certain / Death, taxes and lost data / Guess which has occurred.

A crash reduces / Your expensive computer / To a simple stone.

The average character count for each of these is 65. That’s a lot less than the 160 you get to write a text message, or even the 140 allowed for ‘tweeting’ on the microblogging service Twitter.

So it’s unfair to blame lazy language and shallow thought on Messenger, Twitter or any other technology that forces conciseness upon us. The expansive Stephen Fry has become an unlikely champion of Twitter. Last week he found himself stuck with his mobile and time to kill, but took no more than his 140 character allowance to convey it all — fact, feeling and personality — in what has already become a classic ‘tweet’:

‘OK. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s Teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo and widdle.’