The Degeration of Communication

This article is a little off topic, and really more of a rant than anything else. But its been bugging me for a while.

We’ve done it. It took thousands of years of development, but we’ve finally done it. The first breakthrough was a series of improvements in paper and ink, allowing for our writing to survive with a greater degree of legibility for longer. Perhaps the biggest break through until the 1800s was the movable type printing press (a technology that can easily be used sustainably by the way). And then telegraph lines, phone lines, and now communication satellites. With the Internet we have, for all intents and purposes, true instantaneous communication between any two people anywhere on Earth. And now that we have finally achieved this truly remarkable feat, we have lost the ability to communicate. The irony would have had Sophocles in stitches.

What we have lost is obvious in some ways, and hidden in others. The most obvious thing we have lost is the ability, or even inclination, to use correct grammar. Using our language correctly isn’t difficult or complicated, but it does require a certain degree of mindfulness that our era does not reward. To write correctly requires that you pay attention to what you are writing, which is difficult when the only thing we reward is the speed at which the finished draft can be delivered. This has so thoroughly ingrained itself into our society that most teachers no longer even try to teach grammar to students.

This is the most obvious when we examine commas. Teachers either tell their students to “do whatever sounds right” or “do not use commas.” Neither of which is helpful. What sounds right may not read right, and commas have three uses, only three uses, and they must be used when those three situations occur. They are used to separate elements in a list. They are used with coordinating conjunctions (see above for an example using the word “and”). And they are used to separate a dependent clause from the remainder of the sentence. It sounds more complicated than it really is.

Another thing we have lost is the art of the argument. The Greeks and the Romans raised this to a high art that scholars in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance tried to duplicate, and only occasionally succeeded. But we consider it verbose and obfuscated. With instant communication came the sound byte. Now we have to capture an argument in a single catch phrase, which is ultimately only the conclusion of the argument. The argument itself is no longer heard or even always made. This has had another effect, since the argument is no longer being made we can no longer analyze the argument. So we are left with either accepting or rejecting the conclusion as given. A determination we make with no better information than whether or not we think it sounds good.

Perhaps the most regretful change of all is that we have lost the art of the insult. We live in an age in which we can insult people that a century ago we would have never even known existed. And now the most brilliant insult we can muster is “yo mama.” Once people could call each other mangy cur; filthy vermin; or even an uncouth, dishonorable, degenerate vagabond. And the reason we have lost this once beloved art form is a combination of two changes. First, we now live in the age of the sound byte, while the best insults tend to the form of soliloquies. And second, quite frankly, most people don’t know enough words to avoid sounding repetitive.

And so, I beg you, please. Even if you can’t figure out a comma. Even if you won’t make a complete argument. Please, come up with something a little more devastating than the sentence fragment that is “yo mama.”

-Benjamin Shender



  1. June 13, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Interesting observations!

    Along with the lost art of argument, we have also lost the critical essay. Essays are an excellent way to make a polished and concise observation, criticism, or suggestion; but instant communication as well as the notion that “everyone’s idea is important and valid” has all but killed the critical essay.

  2. Jacob Barton said,

    June 13, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Insofar as things are what is said about them (in the social world), there are some language-tools that may be of use here.

    One idea is that of the “formulation”, in the sense of “prepare, compose a statement, say something that hasn’t been said before, be mindful and intentional and take responsibility as much as possible for what you say AND how you say it”. Voicing a preference for more formulation could do much to counteract unwanted instant communication.

    Another is making a *grammatical* distinction between “report” and “argument”: A report is an independent clause, and an argument is the connection between two or more reports, necessitating a dependent clause. “And” keeps two statements reports; connecting them with a “but” or “because” is the argument. I don’t know where this line of thinking could go, but it seems helpful.

    This is sort of where I’m coming from ->

  3. Valnurana said,

    June 14, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    And what an irony it is that even most intelligent and educated cannot spell or do not proofread. This indicates an even greater degeneration (or, perhaps, degradation) of the art of written communication.

  4. Aftermath said,

    June 17, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Yes, it is very ironic that most people don’t proofread sufficiently. But at least we’re trying. The problem is that most of us aren’t even trying anymore.

    -Benjamin Shender

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