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wittgenstein, emoticons, & the death of email

yesterday, i was schooled by my friend austin choi-fitzpatrick. apparently, email is dead. email is “so 2006.” according to choi-fitzpatrick (wtf? i’m citing him like he’s the fucking scholar he is), email had it’s heyday from 1996-2006. now, email is a dead form. for him, email is only his inbox: subject headings, nothing more. for him, it’s all about facebook, text messaging, etc. we, as humans, reduced to 140 characters or less as our mode of communication.

this morning, i read wittgenstein’s notes & lectures on aesthetics, psychology, & religion. wittgenstein argues that language is not universal; however, physical reactions are. he talks, at length, about the inadequacy of words such as “beautiful” or “lovely,” that “beautiful” comes to represent not what is beautiful but an interjection. he argues:

would it matter if instead of saying ‘this is lovely,’ i just said, ‘ah!’ & smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? as far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, don’t come up at all.

whereas i get wittgenstein’s point–words like beautiful or lovely are at times empty, they come to mean much less than what we mean them to mean–i don’t think we could simply substitute a grunt or a physical action. and i agree that words like “beautiful” never conjure up the same thing to any two people, that does not make the word itself–or words in general–obsolete. after all, facial expressions, gestures, etc. can be just as misleading, if not more so, than words.

but this got me thinking about what austin had to say (see here how i’ve switched to calling him austin): what if we play wittgenstein out to his logical extreme? in this increasingly technologically fragmenting world, what if rather than communicate via facebook or text or even email, we just used emoticons, as our way of expressing emotion & feeling? rather than say, “i had a shitty day,” i could just put up a some frazzle faced grumpy tired face? here’s the thing, as austin pointed out, we can’t just have our 10-20 emoticons. we need combinatory abilities. then, we’ll create a new language, one with more capacity for miscommunication & confusion.

one of my colleagues, a philosopher, asked me, as i was thinking out loud about this earlier this morning, what does this reduction of experience into 140 characters do? i had my standard answer, nothing sophisticated or new: well, obviously, it breaks down communication, such that we’re nothing but quippy cleverness that generates as many “responses” as possible. real life people, we’re bound to disappoint, but on facebook, we’re clever.

this is particularly pertinent to these blogs popping up everywhere. i’m a fan of html giant, but what’s there is a lot of self-referential cleverness. is big other any different? is my blog any different? no! but you get a bunch of writers in a room together without booze, and what happens? i remember walking around awp, a freaked out zombie, unable to talk to people. i remember walking around &now, eyes racing from person to person, hiding & wanting to be seen. i’d like to blame technology for that, but it turns out i’ve just got social anxiety. but the thing is that everyone today has social anxiety, and that’s something for reals we can pin on technology. are you cooler than your facebook persona? that’s the real question.

and as for email, i love email. i have long email exchanges with many friends. it’s my preferred mode of communication. i mean, i’d love to sit & talk to most of these people, but email gives me time to think over things, ruminate, delete, cut & paste, etc etc etc. that, & i don’t actually have to leave my house.

3 thoughts on “wittgenstein, emoticons, & the death of email

  1. Can you imagine living in 1830 and sending a letter from where you live in NYC to a friend in Paris? Waiting for the ship to carry it over the sea. Waiting for the response. (I’m thinking of Jane Champion’s new film on Keats – Bright Star – people smelling the paper the person has sent them) What do we smell? Computer fans?

    I think about this often Lily and then somebody says the equivalent of ‘shut the fuck up and deal with it.’ Technology gives us Big Other but there is a price. My attention span is weakened but I get to communicate with people about the things that mean the most to me. I love email as well, I’ve reached out to dozens of writers and people involved with books and have made a book and many connections this way.

    I guess Chomsky talked about the soundbit syndrome a decade or so ago and how he was dissauded from more popular forums because of his long-winded (albeit fascinating) answers. Facebook gives everyone a say, but it seems to be more about keeping us sane, knowing that someone is listening/seeing. I would much rather hang out in a cafe and talk to live people but these discussions aren’t happening there-people are on their laptops having the discussions they want, when they want.

    On the amazing side, look at what the writers, who have embraced the internet, created. There are at least hundreds and maybe thousands of writers who know each other and share things through this tool. To some extent we’ve made our own Paris in ’20’s. Mentorship, exchange and influence takes place in cyberspace. We are right in the midst of this and we’ve all created it.

  2. honestly, this post made me realize that i am much more interesting on the internet than i am in real life and i am currently dealing with this fact.

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