The following op-ed from Politiken helped me understand my instinctive aversion to many recent innovations in digital communications.
I hate cell phones. I have resolutely avoided Facebook and Twitter. I barely know what texting is. I suffer skype because it’s necessary for this job, as is email.
As an amateur linguist, I consider l33t to be a fascinating and devolved dialect of English, but have never owned a device that requires me to use it.
In his opinion piece, the Danish writer Kresten Schultz-Jørgensen describes the inadvertent harm done by modern communications devices to the minds of young people who have grown up with them. He believes the ability to think logically, coherently, and critically has been stunted by the nature of the new media, which are now ubiquitous — except among ancient curmudgeons like me.
Many thanks to Henrik Ræder Clausen for the translation:
Students write and reason at the level of 11-year children
Dissolving linguistic competence leads to self-created fascism, according to university lecturer.
by Kresten Schultz-Jørgensen
With respect to our youth, I’m a happy ambassador.
After ten years as lecturer and exam grader at Danish universities, it appears that young people in their twenties are more diligent, focused, and empathic than the generations before them, and that includes my own.
But they cannot write.
This winter I have been correcting more than a hundred reports, authored by the best of the Danish youth studying communication or politics.
They write as children aged 11, honestly, and their reasoning is at approximately the same level.
First the most trivial — spelling — here is my unofficial hit chart:
Nobody seems able to use present tense correctly: For one, the word ‘synes’ (“have the opinion”) is systematically used in its past tense. Dropping ‘r’ at the end of verbs is rampant, rendering present tenses into nominative. Composite nouns become one word. Double s’ become t’s. Commas are placed entirely at random.
But spelling is not the core problem. Truly crucial is the loss of written language as such.
The ability to set forth an argument, carry out an analysis, draw a conclusion. Main sentences, side sentences and long paragraphs. Socratic argumentation: Building on logic while still reaching out to doubt.
Damn, how this thing is totally long gone! Someone stole reasoning from the writing. The only thing left is the emotionalism of the spoken language, intuitions, and prejudiced judgments of value.
A company which is ‘ridiculous’. A politician is a ‘complete idiot’. Firm verdicts passed by 22-year-old illiterates with unlimited self confidence.
Let me give you a typical example: An exam assignment was to analyse company X, its challenges and potentials in relation to pending legislation increasing the demands on quality in the company’s sugary products.
The students’ reports should thus have contained numbers, reasoning, and a series of recommendations to which the student used a humble and discursive approach.
Reality is usually radically different: In the style of the times we get a huge pile of opinions on the most superficial of levels. For instance, the manager of the company would be requested to “go on television”, or he’d be “perfectly ridiculous”.
One may have the opinion, as some progressive linguists favour, that a “living” language is merely a sign of “linguistic creativity”. That the young, as always, play around with the semantic possibilities, and thus that the development can never be anything but “exciting”.
But my personal opinion is that this “development” is really a devolution, and that George Orwell was right: Dissolving the linguistic competence by necessity leads to an erosion of mental power and the rise of self-created fascism.
Fewer words, less mental space, more prejudices: key components of fascism.
In this case the devolution is related to both the sensationalism of the mass media and the falling level of political discourse. The crisis of behaviour in family, public school as well as in high school. And the list goes on.
But let me point out another, partly neglected, cause of this: Current digital technologies are in themselves lowering the mental power of the new generations.
One problem is the sheer amount of information, and the built-in superficiality that by necessity follows the never-resting cell phones, ultraportables, and iPads.
A distinct problem is the way technology functions, the demand for multitasking and the parallel consciousnesses: Email in the computer, Facebook updates, Twitter messages.
The worst, though, is the format imposed by the technology. Being fast is not sufficient. It also has to be brief, and as close to spoken language as possible. This can be interesting for linguists, but is rarely conducive to analytical skills or abstract thinking.
In practical terms: A text message (SMS) is limited to 160 characters, Twitter messages 140, and this necessitates unauthorized abbreviations, telegram-style grammar lacking subject, sound imitations and judgments of value rather than argumentation.
That’s how it is, calling a spade a spade.
The consequences of this are seen in writing, reasoning and — to use a very abstract word — the collective opinion-forming mechanism of society. Orwell would have a clear opinion of Daneland in the year 2011.
As would Socrates. In the town square of Athens he was asking his annoying question — “What do you really think?” — exactly in order to dismantle superficial verbal wordflows.
Today superficiality is implemented through technology. I will not kick in open doors by reiterating the classical rhetorical and philosophical arguments, merely underline that our civilization builds upon several millennia of emphasizing that the sensible criteria for forming opinions are, in principle, the same as those used to evaluate a scientific discussion.
To make an effort, in contrast to thinking and writing according to what I would call the principle of least resistance — prejudices.
That effort includes, first and foremost, the demand for logic. Are you able to think in a stringent way? Then comes the demand to think freely — do you have the gifts of doubt and curiosity? Next comes the demand to set forth arguments and carry a burden of proof, and the demand for appropriate context.
Well, and then the subjectivity of your own arguments: Why — and now we’re back to Socrates — why do you really hold the opinion that you do? All of these points should be lucidly clear before you throw your judgments of value in the face of everyone else.
My own opinion is positive towards youth, who are positive and well brought up. But they cannot write, and think only barely well enough to cover their private needs. Fascism is on its way, way cool on Facebook.