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
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
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
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.
HUGGS I embrace you.
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 >People's "handles" are wonderful. Here
are some typical handles from two actual chat
< materializing suddenly in the room >
< snuggling into MARYBELL's lap >
< @&*X# -- pushing cat off keyboard >
QUANTUM CAT <entering through the wall>
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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