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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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"Pointing the finger..."

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Sometimes I become genuinely concerned about the future of interpersonal communication between people of my own generation.  There is no shortage of ways to spread ideas, but there seems to be a lack of faculty to utilize these avenues.

Before going further, I want to preface my own thoughts with a quote from Rudolf Arnheim.  Arnheim's essays throughout the 1930s on the subject of film, mass communication and psychology were far more insightful than most of what is written on the subject today.  The following quote comes from Arnheim's 1938 essay "A Forecast of Television:"

Television is a new, hard test of our wisdom.  If we succeed in mastering the new medium it will enrich us.  But it can also put our mind to sleep.  We must not forget that in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to other made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts.  For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think.  When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

Read it again, but replace "television" with the "Twitter," "Facebook" or any other social networking service which has made shorthand communication popular and accessible.  I firmly believe that these services have led to problems between how people relate to each other face-to-face.

Social networks are not a problem in and of themselves.  From cuneiform inscriptions to Gutenberg's printing press to the iPad, ideas, throughout history, always utilize the latest advances in technology to spread from person to person.  However, until the past few years, the communication of what happens in daily life required complete thoughts to be committed to letters or emails.

We must not forget that in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to other made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts.

Today, the capabilities of smartphones have finally equaled the possibilities offered by online social networks.  It is no longer necessary to harness the power of words to describe what interesting things we saw in the course of a day; we can take a photograph with a mobile device and share it with the entire world in the space of a few seconds.  I don't imply that this is a good or bad thing in and of itself, it is simply the place to which we as a culture have come.

Where I see a very definite problem with social networking is the irresponsibility with which it is used by the people who have grown up with it.  The children of the Baby Boomers viewed the arrival of everything from text messaging to Facebook with varying degrees of suspicion, while their kids, who have known these advances from an early age, are not only comfortable with them, but are increasingly reliant on on them to communicate.

As a result of this reliance, the "shrinkage of the mind" which Arnheim mentions is increasingly apparent in conversation.  There is an experiment which I like to perform to gauge people's use of language.  When someone mentions having seen a new film or read a book, I ask them what it is about.  If they start to tell me what happens in the plot, I stop them and say "I don't want to know what happened, I want to know what it was about; what the theme was."  And, sadly, very few people seem concerned with the true meaning of what they watch or read.  They fail to "draw the general from the specific."

I realize, and have previously written, that entertainment is less and less concerned with offering ideas that transcend aesthetics.  As such, it isn't surprising that stories are viewed by most audiences as little more than a chain of events strung together without deeper meaning.  However, I am growing concerned that an entire generation has grown up with little regard, or even awareness of thematics and meaning.

For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think.  When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

Communication is necessary to life.  But it isn't enough to "point the finger" with a photograph or a star rating.  Language, and the full usage of it, is important.  When George Orwell wrote 1984, he explored the idea of an oppressive state reducing the breadth of language to in order to communicate ideas efficiently and without emotion, as detailed by the character of Syme in chapter three:

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?…The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Prior to writing 1984, Orwell wrote on this subject in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," in which he discussed the effects of thought upon language, and of language upon thought:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

I feel vindicated in my feelings on this subject when they are confirmed by a mind like Orwell's.  However, unlike me, Orwell was able to find a foreseeable solution.

The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

It only remains necessary to impress the importance of language upon culture--language as a living, complete, exciting way of expressing thoughts and ideas.  And in the age of convenience, when it there is the constant opportunity to reduce the human experience to a shared photo or a "check-in," therein lies the challenge.