Posts Tagged ‘Communication’

Snail Email

In Communication on September 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm

cartoon-getting-a-letter-in-the-mailD. Hannah, Dubai

Gone are the days of eMail as we knew it. Where once the excitement of something new, now lies only the faded thrill of a letter. We may have hundreds of thousands rotting in our inbox every morning, waiting for our reply to be popped and sealed into the vacuum tube of the Internet internal messaging system (where it in turn waits to be fired back) but that one speck of gold – that one name we recognise immediately, being usually conspicuous by its absence, will send me into paroxysms of glee. Yes a veritable tin of glee is opened and poured liberally over open hand to be rubbed together, quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and shrill giggle, thoughts flashing ahead to home, wine (I’d recommend a good Kiwi red) and sitting down to peruse it at my leisure. Even a short missive if represented by the right name will banish thoughts of work – not that I usually get as far as the medium of the missive. No the name is enough to send me to sign out just in case I get a premature glimpse.

eMail is now to be savoured like the letters of sweethearts in war movies (minus the running of the scented envelope under nose of course – technology has and probably can go just so far). I mean it’s just so damn rare that we get ones that matter. When they first came out, the world was a bigger place, and phone calls being so expensive the new idea was jumped upon. Suddenly, it was cheap and fast to keep in touch. Then it became cheap but not fast enough. Text and instant messenging came into vogue, MSN to gmail chat to skype, available and on as soon as you booted your computer so everyone could see you were there and ready set waiting to be talked to. Then that too became too difficult – I mean actually responding to people? What were they thinking?

And so came the mass transit systems of communication. Now people don’t just see that you’re there, they see what you are thinking, doing and plin-plon-planning. A response without responding. Ingenious I must admit, but not for me. When – and more to the point why – did communication between friends become one to many? Wasn’t that sort of communication why books were invented? At least books contain stories – beginnings, middles and ends. Where’s the climax in Myspace, the face off in Face Book? When I talk to a friend, I want conversation – someone genuinely thinking about what I may want to hear – someone thinking of me and how I fit in their context.

As Sympathies is dedicated to the thought of picking up the quill and parchment (or flipping open the lid to keyboard as it were) I ask you this. When was the last time you sat down, and with malice aforethought tapped out a real eMail to an unsuspecting friend? Try it. The two I have received this month have made the long summer weeks go a little quicker (I live in the Middle East – this is a good thing).

So as the last Face Book holdout, I go back to the front and prepare to go over the top. eMail is the way forward. If you want to hear from me, you must be prepared to hear FROM me – not about me. And rest assured as I write I will be sitting and thinking to myself ‘remember that time…’ and may you catch a glimpse of that sentiment and find yourself in quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and a shrill giggle.

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Your Neurons and the Classics

In Communication, Metaphysics on July 31, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Dean Williams, Kyoto

My argument is with those…who congratulate themselves on a knowledge …gained without any human guidance.

Nobody should regard anything as his own, except perhaps a lie. What do we possess that we have not received from another?

I reveal not only what I understand but the rules to be observed in the process of understanding it.

St. Augustine

A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance. Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age.


Note: This is the first of a two-parter. I did my best to smooth out the different parts of this piece but in all probability its virtue lies in the charm of its disparate, wonky parts rather than any underlying coherence.  Hopefully in the second part I can tie things together.

Beyond Language

Years ago I had a falling-out with a friend. The first tentative steps towards a reconciliation were made by her. It was a card with a gorilla on it and the caption, “Sleep now, talk later.” Let’s let it rest for a while, she was wisely telling me. There was nothing to be gained by communication at that point in time, nothing at all. It was better to wait, just wait. And some years later, we did have a sort of autumnal rapprochement. She had been right: talking wasn’t what was needed, nor was listening. No matter how persuasive our words would have been or how sympathetic their recipient, the situation would have crushed the attempt. She and I were in a place beyond the aegis of language.

Beyond language. It is frightening even to contemplate. One imagines an unfortunate person with aphasia, (a language disorder) or being at the bottom of the black sea, or on the other side of the moon. If  aliens wanted to conquer earth I can think of no more effective strategem than to somehow deprive our species of language. Cut off, isolated and terrified, we would be easy pickings. The ability to come together and create meaning  lies at the heart of our understanding of what humanity is.

But how, precisely, is that accomplished? Wherein lies our capacity for the creation of human meaning? Is it a sheer biophysical talent, akin to any other animal’s ability to react to and shape its environment? Or is it culturally transmitted? Obviously the “it” in question, ‘human meaning’, is a massive and nebulous construct. But I would like to take a small shot at it.

The next passage might not seem to have too much to do with the ostensible subject of my sporadically appearing series of posts, literary classics, but I beg your indulgence.  I’ve been reading some cognitive science material for quite awhile; let’s see if it has done me any good. I would like to try to relate some recent findings on the brain and our biological language faculty to the broader realms of history and culture. The basic point is that we create meaning (linguistic, musical, philosophical…) through an exquisitely refined, resilient and flexible bottom-up process that begins with neurons, ends with symphonies, or pogroms, and that is terrifyingly dependent on the right kind of articulated (complex) stimulation. In modernese, it’s Nature, leaning heaveily on Nurture.

A  longer version of the same basic concept: the astonishing plasticity of the human brain, its bottom-up and decentralized nature, is what gives us our protean power, our apparently limitless ability to “make it new.” However, there might be a price to be paid, in everyday affairs and at the highest, most consequential levels of cultural history. Cognitively speaking, evolution has not moored us that firmly to a set of clearly identifiable, unvarying points that  we can claim mentally define us as human. It is true that surveys of world cultures have found certain traits that indeed can only be described as universal: sexual taboos, leaders, gossip, beliefs about death, and many others. But I will stake out the position that these are cultural human universals, not cognitive human universals. Continue Reading