Monday, June 18, 2012


An Essay
C. Neuroticus Absolutus
Man's predecessors may not have always been social creatures, but they eventually realized the benefits of, and safety in, numbers. They grew from paired mates to family units to clans, tribes, and beyond to the megalopolises that are the social experiments of today. This growth was probably not possible without language.

As with most species, early man’s survival depended on early warnings against threats and predators, communicating the location of food, water and safe shelter against the ravages of nature. Before language developed, perhaps early communications included grunts, shrieks, whistles and screeches—much like those used today by our primate cousins and some rednecks. Sharp glares, gaping, toothy snarls and a slap alongside the head left no question that someone was laying claim to that tasty brontosaurus rump you’d been gnawing—or in the case of vegan ancestors, perhaps that stalk of bananas you staked out as your own. Predictably, the head slap became annoying and the slappee finally muttered, “Hey, man! Can’t we talk about this?”—to which the slapper replied with robust chest beating or the activation of a malodorous defense system highly developed by some homo sapiens. Yeah, I know man didn’t live in the time of the dinosaurs, but according to Darwin, his ancestors did.

As for mating, the display of three-inch incisors a mere hair’s-breadth from the tip of one’s nose, coupled with a breath smelling of yesterday’s meal of baboon butt, was probable cause for a suitor to withdraw from a skirmish meant to decide who owned the harem, which everyone knows is high maintenance. As for early homo sapien females, no language was required to determine what the alpha male wanted. It was always the same and, headache or not, his intentions were universally understood. For those slow to catch on, a smack alongside the head easily compelled the correct response, until one early feminist warned, “Yo, dude. Do that again and you’re reproductive capabilities will become severely limited!” This wisdom was passed down through the generations and finally carved in stone shortly after the issuance of the first Swiss Army knife.

Note that even these basic forms of communication did not consist merely of vocalizations. Homo sapiens and some other species detect sophisticated nuances from vocal inflections—volume, tone, pitch, pace, pauses—and, for us, word selection. We augment our voices with facial expressions, hand movements and even posture to add meaning to each word and thought we vocalize. Understanding these complex transmissions is necessary to comprehend the true—the intended—meaning of the communicator. To draw a parallel with modern times, I believe it is safe to say we all know the meaning of a shout, an angry scowl and a single finger displayed in rush-hour traffic. A word of caution: Some drivers are ambidextrous.

Some linguists theorize that at some point, protohumans must have used a protolanguage and, according to one theory, estimate that first hypothetical language developed between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. A sound byte is available at

Early man probably felt the need to increase the distance over which he could effectively communicate, the development of which would greatly improve security. A big break in long distance communication followed the development of written language. The first known written language, dated to circa 3500 BC, comes from the ancient city of Harappa, Pakistan, predating Egyptian and Mesopotamian finds. The Harappa writing has not been deciphered, but may be something as simple as a book on Texting for Fun and Profit. Regardless, written messages were portable and could be carried long distances on foot, horseback, by camel, boat, raft, etc., whatever conveyance was available in the day. Written words could also be stored and reread later, providing greater accuracy than oral histories. New employment opportunities arose and careers as scribes in local monasteries were plentiful. Sadly, in 1440 the Guggenheim printing press caused a tremendous reduction in force. Luckily, some scribes were retrained as copy boys. Legend has it that others reveled in their freedom from the dimly lit copy rooms and became editors, agents and publishers.

The literary works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the resulting Tarzan movies taught us about drums passing messages through the jungle. The usual message, translated by the village chief, was, “Okay, B’wana, mo’ better you go home now!” The drums repeated the messages in case you missed a beat or the drum tattoo was in the foreign language of another tribe. “Boom! Boom! Baboom!”—meaning, “Having party, bring food,” in one language, being translated as “Boom! Boom! Bababoom,” meaning, “Having party. Outsiders welcome for dinner.” The practice of drum messaging ceased when pirates began stealing drummer identities and sending fake dinner inviations.

Messages conveyed by smoke signals were limited to a small vocabulary and didn’t work well in the rain. Distances stretching beyond the horizon required repeating stations, which raised the cost of messages, most of which were, “White man come! Quick! Hide squaws!”

In rather rapid succession, the invention of numerous electrical devices improved the speed and movement of messages until they crossed not only continents, but oceans.

The partnership of William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone patented the electrical telegraph in May, 1837. Samuel F. B. Morse developed a universally accepted cipher allowing transmission of messages over great distances. Perhaps Western Union’s success inspired Ida Emerson and Joseph Howard to pen, “send me a kiss by wire,” in their song Hello My Baby.

On May 24, 1844, Morse telegraphed the famous words, "What hath God wrought?" from the
B & O Mount Clare Station in Baltimore, Maryland, to the Capitol Building in Washington. Wire soon crossed the continent from the east coast to the west and electrical signals conveyed messages with greater speed over greater distances than ever before. The railroads and the Army prized telegraph key operators with not only exceptional speed and accuracy, but good singing voices as well..

Although founded in 1851, in 1856 The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company became the Western Union Telegraph Company. A good thing, I say.

From April, 1860, to October, 1861, the Pony Express carried mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, with coast-to-coast delivery in about 10 days. The short time the Pony Express riders plied the mail routes is blamed on the ponies, which formed the first postal union and demanded larger feedbags, gourmet oats, sunbonnets and pensions which guaranteed them green pastures. Their demands brought immediate dismissal. Their replacements were horses of a different color.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new invention with the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” The following day, his wife Eliza, who was deaf, smacked Alex alongside the head and insisted that he invent something she could use. His mother, Ma Bell, also deaf, smacked him too, and the following year organized the Bell Telephone system and installed herself as CEO. Ironically, Bell would not allow a telephone in his study because it interfered with his work. (He knew this as early as 1876? The man was a genius!)

In 1893, the father of wireless telegraphy Nikola Tesla was awarded a patent for his wireless telegraph. This allowed ships at sea to receive news and weather forecasts. An enterprising ship’s radioman used his skills to transmit the first porn. His arresting officer misunderstood, however, and cited him for using the Worse code. Thirty-seven years later, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” became the signature lead-in for radio newscaster Walter Winchell.

In 1897, the father of radio Guglielmo Marconi began broadcasting audio signals and radio was born. However, it was Reginald Fessenden whose inventions finally brought us audio broadcasting using amplitude modulation. That’s AM radio. They’re still talking about it. However, AM radio is subject to static produced over thirteen billion years ago by the big bang. This static hissing sound is audible between stations when tuning across the broadcast spectrum. FM, or frequency modulated radio, followed on January 1, 1941. Noise is effectively eliminated from FM broadcasts thus improving the fidelity of any sounds broadcast

More recently came the Internet followed by e-mail. The younger generation did not readily accept e-mail, perhaps because the origin of each e-mail is traceable. Instead, they use the AOL instant Messenger technology to send and receive instant text messages on mobile platforms, the true purpose of which is to irritate mom, dad, grandma and grandpa by rudely texting at the supper table. Texting has become the preferred method of communication for teens and young adults. Rather than actually speak to one another (heaven forbid!), even those within whispering distance of each other prefer texting.
More recently, WebCams have brought interactive video to the masses, allowing Skype subscribers to watch as they text each other.

As for smacking someone alongside the head, the tradition continues on television where on Tuesday nights we can watch NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs smack Senior Field Agent Anthony DiNozzo alongside his head for—well, for almost anything.

Humans have spent millennia perfecting technologies that allow expansion of our range of communication over distances to peoples far beyond the horizon. The Voyager 1 space probe, launched September 5, 1977, is now over 10 billion miles from the sun and the ones and zeros of digital communications from the probe take some 14 hours to reach Earth, even at the speed of light. I hope they packed a toothbrush and a change of underwear for the brave and lonely little traveler.

The continuing development of communication devices has resulted in bringing people closer and closer together into larger and larger social media groups of “friends.” But, instead of becoming more cohesive, linguistically homogenous societies, we appear to be degrading not only our linguistic abilities, but our evolution as socially adept beings. Many “friends” lie about their age and sex, and post fictitious biographies with beguiling photographs, without which we would never have any interest in these people as friends.

Text messaging, with its inherent 140 character limitation, has led to monosyllabic conversations which often contain character-saving homonyms, acronyms and single-character emoticons resulting in the dumbing down of our language and our citizens.

This dumbing down has been borne out by numerous studies.
"Summarizing several studies done in the United States and Canada, the average reading skill level was estimated to be at around the 8th to 9th grade (University of Utah Health Sciences Center). However, this same study found that about one in five adults had a reading skill level at the 5th grade level or below."

That's 20% of our population, 60 million people. And we worry about producing more graduates with strong math and science skills? Shouldn't everyone learn to read first?

“But it's interesting to note that:
  • many newspapers and magazines are written to a 9th grade level;
  • USA Today, New York Times, and the New Yorker are written to a 10th grade level; 
  • The Times of India is the least readable, at a 15th grade level.
  • Authors John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, and Clive Cussler and many others write at a 7th grade level;
  • Romance novels are often written at a 5th grade level”

Our slide towards social ineptness began decades ago, perhaps even farther back. Long before the advent of the printing press, social gatherings around the campfire were the venue for storytelling, orally passing on the clan or tribal legends and history interactive social media. Books and literacy opened doors that stretched far from one's campfire. But reading books and letters made communication a one-way street between the writer and the readerno vocal social interaction. Learning new subjects or experiencing the pleasure of fantasy could come from books without the much-enjoyed intercourse with a teacher.

The one-way communication of movies, radio, television, CDs and DVDs only serves to accelerate the loss of social interaction. Note here that in the early days of radio, the 1920s, '30s, '40s and even the early '50s, dances were popular social events and the music was often broadcast; it was an era of bands playing live music and couples at the dance enjoyed the touch and feel of true social interaction. Television continued this tradition of music and dancers with shows like American Bandstand, but on radio and TV, it was not social interaction for anyone listening or watching.

The recording of sound on cylinders by Thomas Alva Edison brought music-on-demand into the homes of those who hand-cranked their machines to wind the spring driven motor. Recorded disks replaced cylinders and electric turntable motors replaced spring motors. Analog recording media rapidly progressed from vinyl disks to eight-track tapes to tape cassettes before being replaced by digital compact disks, iPods and MP3 players where digital recordings permit small, batterty-powered, portable devices to store and playback hundreds, even thousands, of songs or recorded audio books. The now ubiquitous ear buds subdue real world sounds and provide a high-quality, stereo, individual listening experience that inhibits the effectiveness of attempts at conversation. Any attempts to engage in a two-way conversation must be preceded by an attention-getting smack on the back of the head.

Meanwhile, storage media has matured and migrated to password-protected digital storage devices somewhere in cyberspace called “The Cloud.”

Succeeding generations of dancing American youths built upon the popularity of the Charleston, then the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, the Twist, which sired a multitude of new dances, the progeny of rock and roll. As the rhythm of the dances increased, it became more difficult to hang on to the hand of a dancing partner. With each generation the participants moved farther from their partners or danced without partners at all. Today's youth gyrate their hips and wave their arms in a scenario that seems to say, “Look at me. I'm sooo desirable! I'm yours. Take me!” But it seems to only be a flamboyant gesture of courtship, much as a number of species of birds undertake in their mating ritualsexcept that touching and any resultant mutual physical arousal or satisfaction doesn't seem to be the point at all. What each individual takes from these dances is secreted in the minds of the participants. Perhaps that's better than a slap on the back of the head for getting too touchy-feely or worse, pregnant.

Using television as a baby sitter cannot be faulted as an excuse for lack of social skills for children sired in the '30s or '40s. But beginning with those born in the '50s, the one-way TV communication phenomenon swept through America like a cyclone as Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Deputy Dawg, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and the many Hanna Barbera creations mesmerized an entire generation of children with one-way communication. Over the years, their viewership grew to tens of millions of children.

Earlier generations of children passed notes behind their teacher's backs, wrote crib notes on the palms of their hands, on the cuffs of long-sleeved shirts or the hems of dresses. Today's youth pass their secret notes as they do with most of their social networking: via text messages. No one knows what they are texting nor whom they are texting. It is the height of social secrecy. But at least it's sociable (two-way) communication, if one wishes to overlook the the 140 character limitation of messages, the teen acronyms and emoticons, all invented to further encrypt the meaning of their messages.

Children raised in the one-way communication era brought on by long hours of mental suckling at the teat of the aptly-named boob-tube, do not learn to express themselves well in social situations, perhaps because they have not been required to express or share their thoughts or emotions. For one thing, television drones on without providing an opportunity or even the necessity to think or to reply, thus not stimulating any need to communicate one's thoughts or feelings at all.

Let's face it. Our kids are sneaky, secretive and socially inept. How do we correct these obvious faults? Sneakiness: Children must illustrate adherence to an acceptable set of ethical motives before being handed a device that promotes secrecy in communication. Secretiveness: Limit children's use of texting as their primary means of communication and prohibit underage acceptance into social media sites such as Face- book. Social ineptitude: Most of our youths are not anti-social; they merely lack social skills. Role models. Parents must become involved to reverse current trends before they are passed along to their grandchildren. But as teachers of proper social interaction, the grandparents have already failed once. With 5th grade reading levels, are they up to the task?

The solution to all these ills is parenting. Parental controls such as passwords for access to specific programming is not the solution. Controlling television viewing time is paramount. Adult supervised interaction with siblings or play dates with peers provide far more success in learning social skills.

Is it possible these same problems are responsible for the failure of so many marriagesover 50%? Inability or lack of willingness to share or to compromise are certainly contributors to this social phenomenon. And lack of knowledge about how to debate an issue without the discussion becoming personal and threatening further worsens the chances of finding a mutually agreeable solution. Secrecy in communications has attained “must have” status. Today's youth do not subscribe to any reasonable code of ethics or standards. TV images and sound bytes tell us how to vote, what to believe, where to spend our money and what products and services to purchase.
Perhaps we're not so different from the shaman or chief telling stories around a campfire. But TV is not interactive and is far more mesmerizing and insidious. And who is going to turn it off? The parents? The children? Don't count on it.
I don't want someone to talk to me. I want someone to talk with.

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