Looking over your shoulder

morning by zoetnet Creative Common licence (CC BY 2.0)

morning by zoetnet Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)

In days gone by, we used to peer over other people’s shoulders on trains and in public spaces to read their newspapers. Flitting headlines would parade before us, grabbing our attention, as history unfolded before our eyes:

  • Princess Diana killed in car crash
  • Terror attacks: America is at war
  • Obama wins election

Others just left us feeling baffled:

  • Diana was still alive just hours before she died
  • Headless body found in topless bar
  • Werewolf seized by officials at beach resort

Now we peer over people’s shoulders hoping to catch glimpses of their smartphones. The fragments of information that flicker before our eyes make us feel even more puzzled about the world we live in:

  • Kardashian in new big a$$ scandal.
  • #hashtag
  • OMG he so didn’t say that. WTF.

It’s fascinating. It’s addictive. It’s entirely uninformative.

Is what we are seeing the destruction of society, or even language itself? Or is it just evolving at an ever-faster, more personalized pace?

17 responses to “Looking over your shoulder

  1. I think it is evolving more rapidly. We have nearly instant access to thing typed. Popularity spreads virally fast. Perhaps not destruction, but definitely change.

  2. It’s on ongoing evolution. We once sat around the camp fire and heard gossip about what was going on in our tribe, and maybe even what was happening in neighboring tribes. Now we do it on the internet, with some parts being especially quick, like the Twitter storms that now frequently arise.

    Sometimes it’s real information. Often it isn’t. It propagates a lot faster and we all individually have access to a lot more of it than we used to. But as far as the overall ratio of real knowledge to baloney, I’m not sure it’s changed, although with modern technology, we at least have the opportunity to choose our sources, with the danger of selecting those that simply reinforce our biases.

    • It can be quite fun not to choose sources, but to randomly peek at other people’s sources. At least for a short while.

      • I once looked over one of my younger staff’s shoulder at his laptop screen. He had what looked like every gaming site in existence in separate tabs with a D&D rule book up on the active one. (He was looking up something for our D&D group.)

        Every time I visit my aunt and uncle, I discover an alternate reality fueled by US conservative media outlets. They’re often following controversies I’m only dimly or not at all aware of. Last year, my aunt asked me if there were any “sanctuary cities” in my state. I hadn’t even heard the term until then. (In the US, sanctuary cities are those who don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities unless they have a warrant.)

        I’d like to think I’m not in a bubble like these people are, but I suspect from their vantage point, I very much would be.

  3. Chris Bonnett

    “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
    ― Walker Evans

  4. “Is what we are seeing the destruction of society, or even language itself? Or is it just evolving at an ever-faster, more personalized pace?”

    I’m not sure those are exclusive. The thing about language is that it’s a shared tool for communication. When it becomes highly personalized and very contextual, communication suffers (at least with those outside the in-group).

    Any smart (that is, cunning) linguist [smirk] will tell you that language only evolves, it never dies or is “threatened” with destruction. It just changes. Which is definitely is doing now. As you say, as a fast pace.

    My concern (and disagreement with those linguists) is the loss of precision and nuance that seems to be happening. Language is being compressed, vocabulary distinctions are being lost, and — often — so is meaning. (CNN and others have entirely devalued the meaning of “Breaking News” for instance. Politics and advertising, in general, have disconnected words from truth. facts, and reality.)

    Language, of some kind, always survives. We’re chatty damn apes. And social. My question has always been: Will the result be as rich and useful as the tool used by Shakespeare and many others? Will it capture our ideas and thoughts as well? Will it educate and inspire?

    Or will it be a bunch of emojiis viewed in our VR goggles?

    In a famous speech, Edward R. Murrow asked a similar question about television (which was relatively new at the time). He warned that if we treated it casually it would be “nothing but wires and lights in a box” rather than the potentially useful tool for information and education. His warning was well-taken. It basically did end up as he warned. I suspect we’re still headed in that direction.

    • So words are being devalued infinitely faster. I mean, like, literally. Rolls eyes. 🙂

      Sorry! But my weak attempt at humour aside, new words are being invented at an ever increasing rate – some very precise and specialised. I’d rather be an English-speaker than the French, who have a fraction of our vocabulary, and aren’t allowed to deviate from state-legislated use of language. Plus, you and I can still continue to use our old-fashioned grammar if we want to, regardless of what others choose to do.

      I’m currently reading about the inventors of written language – the Sumerians – and might blog about that shortly. But not in cuneiform.

  5. “Diana was still alive just hours before she died” Love it!

    On language—I just have to get it out—the word “courage” gets thrown around a lot. Someone who’s a victim of something, someone who dies from some disease, all these people are courageous. Not saying they can’t also be courageous, but the news makes it seem that they are courageous simply by virtue of dying. Sorry, that’s not true. The word is starting to lose meaning (although I suspect most people can still see through the fog.)

    On the news and information: I’m finding that despite all the ways we can access news, it’s so limited. One issue gets thrown into the spotlight and suddenly everybody cares about that issue. Doesn’t matter that the issue has been around for a very long time or that there are other things happening in the world that are far more important.

    That said, there are fringe issues that SAP brought up, things we have to dig into if we want to find out more.

    • You’re right about courage. There are lots of words that get over-used. Disgusted is another one. I think we still retain a collective folk memory of what those words are supposed to mean.

      These days I get much of my news from the internet. But I’m not talking about Facebook. The reason I no longer watch the news on TV is not because it has got worse, but because a better alternative has emerged. Now I can read about things that interest me, instead of the usual doom-and-gloom.

      • I totally get that. I do get some Okie news on Facebook, especially if it’s something that’s being discussed nationwide. (Oklahoma ends up in national news a lot, but rarely in any detail.)

        The only reason I watch the news is because my husband turns it on and at that point I’m usually just too tired to do anything but watch it with him. I wonder how many people watch the news just so they can gripe about how awful it is? I have to admit, it is kind of fun.

  6. When I happen to see those bits of info that land on my screen (ie “fer sure he got fired over this!”) I bristle at the effort it takes not to satisfy my curiosity but I know that I will be even more annoyed if I let my attention be diverted. It’s clear that these attention grabbing snippets are meant to entice me to go to a site that is full of advertisements and even more attention grapping headlines.

    The most compelling experience I’ve had about not letting myself get distracted by the manipulation of others was during a trip to NYC, when I was taking my then young children around the city. I was looking forward to going to MOMA to show them Van Gogh’s work, and everything else. On the way they saw the big TOYS R US store and asked to go in. I thought, well, we have time, why not? Big mistake, We went into Toy R Us then,, by the time we got to MOMA they were tired and already visually over simulated. Remembering this day helped me to be mindful about curating my own experiences. IT’s not that I’m opposed to going down some rabbit holes that I hadn’t previously considered, it’s just that I tend to avoid the ones with the neon blinking lights. Some days it’s harder than others, but it always requires effort.

    Love then headlines you chose to quote. esp the second Diana one.

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