“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages vital. Heritage languages were being killed off by increasing urbanization, the spread of formal education and the shift to cash crops, which ended the isolation of indigenous communities. Advances in technology seemed to intensify the decline. “Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”
I’m very weary of the hipster obsession with zombies by now. Cut it out, hipsters. So I felt shame the other night as my friend and I sprinted through the dark along treacherously uneven brick sidewalks, running from zombies and loving it.
Not real zombies, or even hipsters—we were responding to an awesome app for Android phones called Zombie, Run! It’s a location-based game of sorts that places a bunch of zombies between you and your destination on the map. When you’re near enough to a zombie, it begins to give chase. You must reach your destination without a zombie catching you and eating your brains. It’s lots of fun and can make mundane trips much more interesting, especially if you enjoy running around like a maniac in public.
But a game like this is also fascinating when you set down your can of High Life and put on your Geographer hat. It directs a kind of spatial behavior that technology more often stamps out in one way or another—wandering. While our gizmos usually tell us exactly where something is and how to get there, here is something that forces a person to stray from the direct path. Assuming the player keeps his eyes open and actually notices the world around him, the game provides an interesting way of experiencing and understanding urban spaces. By acting upon virtual landscape in the physical landscape, the player travels unpredicted paths and enters areas that might otherwise never have been seen.
The rise in texting is too recent to have produced any conclusive data on health effects. But Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who is director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who has studied texting among teenagers in the Boston area for three years, said it might be causing a shift in the way adolescents develop.
“Among the jobs of adolescence are to separate from your parents, and to find the peace and quiet to become the person you decide you want to be,” she said. “Texting hits directly at both those jobs.”
Psychologists expect to see teenagers break free from their parents as they grow into autonomous adults, Professor Turkle went on, “but if technology makes something like staying in touch very, very easy, that’s harder to do; now you have adolescents who are texting their mothers 15 times a day, asking things like, ‘Should I get the red shoes or the blue shoes?’”
One India reports on how mobile phones are used after the devastating floods in Bihar, India. While relief and aid have been very slow to get to Bihar, mobiles are proving to be a life saver. According to One India, “[Mobiles] are playing the most crucial role in largescale evacuation and rescue of marooned people from far flung areas. The availability of mobile phones to all sections of people across the flooded regions and their 24 hour connectivity during the crisis period, greatly helped the rescue teams to locate the cut off villages and localities besides saving many lives even from remote areas.”
Through cell phones the marnooed people were also able to remain connected with the district officials to guide them about their need and the urgency of rescuing them.
My friend Elisabeth assures me that the new national plague of love yous is a good thing: a healthy reaction against the repressed family dynamics of our Protestant childhoods some decades ago. What could be wrong, Elisabeth asks, with telling your mother that you love her, or with hearing from her that she loves you? What if one of you dies before you can speak again? Isn’t it nice that we can say these things to each other so freely now?
I do here admit the possibility that, compared with everyone else on the airport concourse, I am an extraordinarily cold and unloving person; that the sudden overwhelming sensation of loving somebody (a friend, a spouse, a parent, a sibling), which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I’m at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routine and easily achieved that it can be reëxperienced and reëxpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.
It’s also possible, however, that too-frequent habitual repetition empties phrases of their meaning. Joni Mitchell, in the last verse of “Both Sides Now,” referenced the solemn amazement of saying I love you “right out loud”: of giving vocal birth to such intensity of feeling. Stevie Wonder, in lyrics written 17 years later, sings of calling somebody up on an ordinary afternoon simply to say “I love you,” and being Stevie Wonder (who probably really is a more loving person than I am), he half succeeds in making me believe in his sincerity—at least until the last line of the chorus, where he finds it necessary to add: “And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” No such avowal is thinkable for the person who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.
But the need to save time and energy is by no means the whole story of texting. When we look at some texts, they are linguistically quite complex. There are an extraordinary number of ways in which people play with language - creating riddles, solving crosswords, playing Scrabble, inventing new words. Professional writers do the same - providing catchy copy for advertising slogans, thinking up puns in newspaper headlines, and writing poems, novels and plays. Children quickly learn that one of the most enjoyable things you can do with language is to play with its sounds, words, grammar - and spelling.
The drive to be playful is there when we text, and it is hugely powerful. Within two or three years of the arrival of texting, it developed a ludic dimension. In short, it’s fun.