Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 788:
ON THE NETWORKS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 788.

Today, I learn about language -- and about mental and manual dexterity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here's a neat quotation from historian Calvin Luther Martin:

It is clear that nature has designed us to be, above all, talkers and handlers ... [We] are unsurpassed in the extent of sensory-motor tissue devoted to firing the tongue, lips, larynx, and fingers. ... Mankind is constitutionally a speaker and tinkerer -- born to chat.
I love that phrase, "born to chat." I'm also arrested by the notion that chat is tied to our fingers. For 5000 years we've known how to write. And when we chat with our fingers on paper, the texture of conversation changes radically.

Tonight I was typing, with friends I'd never met, on a computer chat network. Then the producer of this show turned up. We write there under aliases. Let's call him ELECTRIC and me GEARTRAIN. About ten of us were in the room.

Oh, it's not really a room, but that's what we call it. We sit at home, watching words popping up on screen. We type furiously. The trick is to wire our brains to the keyboard so we respond with the fluidity of real conversation.

I've met only a few people from computer chat networks in person. You find they match their computer personalities pretty well, with one curious exception.

We've learned from earliest childhood to represent ourselves with language expressed through the tongue. We've created highly developed armor plate when we speak.

On the nets, we learn speech all over again. Our language is loaded with shorthand and simplified spelling. We replace our own face and body language with icons -- like a sideways smiling face made from a colon followed by a right parenthesis. We have a hundred shorthand affectations like that.

More important, our fingers are less adroit at filtering out the feelings we'd hide in normal speech. I think I know some of these people better on screen than I would in person. Most of them do well under that kind of exposure. Most -- but not all.

Working on the nets, fingers flying, mind churning, I better understand what language really is. It is the link of mind and skill. It is a battle to tell what of ourselves we want told and to hide what we want hidden -- on the fly.

In the end, I tell more than I meant to, and I am healed by self-disclosure. I talk to disembodied people and see them, in many ways, better than I might have seen them face to face.

But I know one person here. My producer. It's now midnight, and I have only three episodes ready to record tommorrow. I cannot hide from ELECTRIC under the person of GEARTRAIN. He chides me. I sign off and go back to the older and more familiar medium of written words.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Martin, C.L., In the Spirit of the Earth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p. 4.

The producer of this progam, mentioned in the text, is Ron Russak, KUHF-FM, Houston.

For some related ideas, see also Episode 723. It and the present episode were written in 1992 and 1993, respectively, and they reflect use of the electronic network in its infancy. Since then, some of these conventions have changed. Some remain. Just for the fun of it, here are some typical examples of iconographic network shorthand as they appeared in 1993:

     re          I REappear.  I am back.  I greet you.

     proly       probably  

     HUGGS       I embrace you.

     kewl        Cool!  

     brb         I'll be right back.

     bbl         I'll be back later.

     bbs         the electonic bulletin boards
     :)          I smile upon you.

     :(          My heart is heavy.

     :P          I stick my tongue out at you

     :>          I leer at you.

     ;)          I wink at you.            

     *>---->--   With this rose I thee endow.

     :o          I am astonished.

     :=          I am a vampire.

Stage directions for imagined, but unspoken, actions are set off with < >. For example:
< smirking silently in the corner >
< materializing suddenly in the room >
< snuggling into MARYBELL's lap >
< @&*X# -- pushing cat off keyboard >
People's "handles" are wonderful. Here are some typical handles from two actual chat boards:
              

              QUANTUM CAT  <entering through the wall>

              STUD DUCK

              APPHIA                               

              FELICIE-JUBILEE

              TUMBLEWEED

              LUKE-THE-DRIFTER

              CLOAK

              BLOODGUARD

              GALDRIN

              BBS-JUNKIE

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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