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Tech and the power of language

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Payphones still line the walls in a shopping mall in Niagara Falls, Canada in 2018. Photo by Kevin Kenealy.

I've been thinking about the power of language this morning. Throughout my thirty-three years, I have seen the world go through some vast technological changes. Our first computer didn't even have Internet. I still grew up as a child having to remember phone numbers and entered them into an 'address book.' Then when Caller ID came around, I thought it was the coolest thing to be able to know who was calling you. I felt like we were the FBI or something, spying on our callers. When my mom gave me a calling card to use from a 'payphone' I thought it was likewise the coolest thing because I essentially got to call from anywhere for free.

I graduated high school in 2004, and I don't recall anyone having or using a cellphone during high school. Up until then, if you wanted to talk to someone, you either called them on the phone or went to their house. But we did it. We talked to people, in person. Imagine that. We called people over our house phones, and we didn't have phones we could take with us for 'emergencies.' Somehow we made it home from school okay and if there was some problem, we figured it out on our own.

I don't remember social media of any form appearing until about my junior year when AOL arrived with the "You've Got Mail!" and the AOL Instant Messenger in our household. I spent several late nights hunched over the keyboard talking to friends via my username Hippiedude16. We had to communicate in realtime. No photos were exchanged, no statuses were posted. The only person we talked to was the sole person we were talking to. We didn't broadcast to the world that we just worked out or we ate the best meal of our lives. We reveled things about ourselves, pretended we were comedians to impress girls, and procrastinated to put off homework. It was great hearing the bing when you got a message, and it was disappointing to hear the door close when someone signed out.

I actually miss MySpace. There. I said it. As we all know, MySpace was a short-lived phenomenon that essentially gave birth to something called Facebook. It was all the rage my senior year through community college years. It differed than Facebook in that it was more personal. It allowed you to post your music playlists and your blogs, and people actually took the time to read your blogs and comment on them. And, it allowed you to redesign your template. Plus, you always had a friend - thanks Tom! I feel like MySpace encouraged people to write and be more creative. You got a taste of music you wanted to listen to and writing you wanted to read. Statuses and photos took a backseat to creativity.

I still didn't have a phone at Moraine Valley Community College from 2004-2006, but by then my friends had them or were getting them. By 2006, a friend of mine told me to join this college social media site called Facebook. She said you needed a college email to join, but it was the new thing. I didn't understand why I should join while I already had MySpace. But she just shook her head and laughed. But that summer of 2006 the world seemed to turn its back on MySpace and I with it. I went off to Eastern Illinois University that summer with my first flip phone and my Facebook account attached.

The flip phone was the coolest thing since sliced bread. If you've ever seen that scene in She's the Man where Channing Tatum (Duke) quickly flips open his phone in a lame attempt to impress Laura Ramsey (Olivia), I think we all felt that way at some point with those phones. Having an alarm on a phone? What!? So cool! And we could text. We no longer needed a computer for AOL. In fact, AOL dial-up was a thing of the past, as my apartment building supplied us with an ethernet cable. Texting became all the rage now, almost immediately replacing phone calls. The more people texted, the more abbreviated language became. Be right back became BRB. Laughing out loud became LOL, and so forth. New words sprung from old words. America grew into an even more fast-paced society almost overnight. Phone sales spiked through the roof.

Adding friends to Facebook throughout college became almost addictive. The new platform focused on the visual and the posts, and friend requests replaced the satisfying bing from AOL's instant messenger. Scrolling through the Facebook stream replaced reading blogs on MySpace. The mind grew lax and lazy as all it had to do was hit a like button instead of add thoughtful comments. Fast-pace America continued.

In 2007, I bought myself an MP3 player, and I loved it. I ran with it, brought it to the gym, and blocked out the noise of the world. But it was just the start of blocking out the world. A couple years after I graduated my mom bought me an iPod touch for Christmas. I thought it was the greatest gift I had ever received. There were so many apps! I just had to see what else I could download. I spent countless hours in my room downloading new apps, listening to music on it, trying the apps out, etc. While I spent this time in my room on my new Apple product, my parents were downstairs making conversation that I was missing out on.

A couple years after that, I traded in my phone with the pull-out keyboard. I loved that phone because I thought it was so easy to text on, and didn't think there would be any other phone like it. I remember being upset when I didn't see that any phones had the same keyboard. When I got my first iPhone though, the 6 Plus, I forgot all about it. Like the iPod touch before it, I spent countless hours scrolling through and downloading new apps.

We had to instill a 'no cell phone policy' at my high school because of the students' phone addiction and what it was doing to their learning. Parents even texted them during class to check up with them. They played 8 Ball or Fortnite in class. The policy had improved learning drastically, but there are still some outlying students who refuse to obey it, even though they serve multiple detentions and suspensions for it.

Most young people today have moved away from Facebook to Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter or Tick Tock. These places may rely on some sort of creativity, as where TickTock is an adaptation of Vine. However, they have taken Facebook's older visual model and made it more extreme. Language has almost successfully worked itself backward to the pictographs seen in caves during prehistoric times.

The writing I receive from some students reflects this. They don't know what a noun or verb is in high school. They don't capitalize the letter I. They don't capitalize the beginning of sentences. Fragments and run-ons are rampant. Abbreviations litter their papers. Their papers are consistently too short, if they are even turned in. This doesn't go for all students, but it does seem to be an ongoing trend.

While technology is great in many respects. I am using it now to write this, and as a teacher, we are using many forms of it to teach during the pandemic, we have to be careful not to use it to ruin the future of language. People still need to talk to each other. People still need to read. People still need to write in some capacity. We can't get lazy. We have to encourage individual thought or it will be like that movie Idiocracy. And we don't want that.

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