impact of digital technology on language

New Romance by Email from Mathew Billingtons portfolio

Being a woman who is interested in the way that digital media influences the art of conversation, I am excited at the prospect of the collaboration between Scottish writer and artist Alastair Gray and Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon. They want to make The Email a 21st century documentary in homage to the classic John Grierson short The Night Mail, based on the poem by WH Auden.

Douglas Gordon has created art in digital media for years including his portrait of Zidane. But what is fascinating is Alasdair Gray’s take on this. The Times report states:

“Part of the creative challenge for Gray is to discover all he can about e-mail, a subject of which he is cheerfully ignorant. “I don’t handle it myself, I have a secretary who does it for me,” he said. “The main thing would be to discover enough about the technical process to find a kind of rhythm. Auden’s text: ‘This is the Night Mail, crossing the border/ Bringing the cheque and the postal order’ has the definite rhythm of a steam train.”

“Discovering the different clickety-click rhythm to accompany an e-mail documentary will be a matter requiring some research.”

The project is is crammed with creative powers and distinctive voices. Auden, Gordon, Gray, Greirson – what a a mash up. Its up for the Creative Scotland Vital Spark awards, created for just such projects.

Producer John Archer also has an interesting take. He says:
“We want to find examples of how people have used e-mail for the big turning points in their lives,” Archer said. “It’s easy to use e-mail to say ‘I love you’, but a lot tougher to say: ‘I’m leaving’.””

A rich seam, huh?

But is it the concept already passed its sell by date? The Iphone has superceded email for intimate conversations and the Ipad will take collobarative, intimate communication into new territory.



Being a woman who is interested in the impact of digital media on our use of language and conversation, I was amused by an article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian last week about the way that the internet is changing our punctuation protocols and in particular the way we use exclamation marks!!

“exclamation marks – those forms of punctuation derided by the funless and fastidious – are making a comeback, thanks to an internet renaissance that is bleeding over into every form of written communication. Once it was bad form to end a paragraph with an exclamation mark. Now it’s borderline obligatory. Once it was enough to put a sign on your door: “Back in five minutes.” Now, without the flourish of an exclamation mark, that sign lacks verve or at least zeitgeisty voguishness. Go figure!”

This is one of several ways in which our digital media impacts upon our use of language. In Here Comes Everybody Clay Shirky compares the digital communications revolution to that of the printing press 500 years ago. Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type spawned a revolution in reproducing print, which impacted upon distribution and content. This innovation was followed by others. Manutius developed the format, printing the octavo size – smaller format which would ”fit in a gentleman’s saddlebags”. The new format allowed new content – in this case including novels with erotic passages.

Today’s communication platforms encourage two polarising trends in content – MORE and LESS. The MORE – publish then filter model – is what we are all involved in when we blog. And we are developing that more and more using Writetoreply for example – see write to reply pages for Art of With.

But its the LESS that interests me. The origin of LESS is SMS. The first years of txtg cr8d nu tk and new language, on the one hand because the text message had to be within a small number of characters to be charged as one message, and on the other because of the clumsy technology which required multiple tapping on small buttons. Not only was text language created but we also learned to think of smart and short ways to communicate. Increasingly we used marks which could communicate complexities and nuances. Think of the different meanings of the simple x when used in various configurations x, xx, Xxx or even XXXX! And of course emoticons.

But the 100 character text message, like the 146 character tweet, constrained conversation. So we needed an equivalent of Manutius’ innovation to allow nuanced communication.

Having been an Iphone woman for 18 months now, I now hold a  number of threads of conversation. Some will be the usual ‘wot time meet?’, ‘where ru?’, ‘good luck’ conversations. But there are several more which include words, ideas and thoughts which would never be emailed (too private and confidential) and never have been texted on an old phone (too nuanced, rich and unconstrained by length).   There are dialogues,drama and ipoems all of which have developed because of the platform and the format, better than the original text message. 

For me there are two specific aspects of the Iphone which contribute towards communicating essential meaning without being reductionist.

One is the record of the threads of conversation in the Iphone conversation – I now have several going back 18 months which show the relationships and themes developing. 

But the main thing is the physical act of messaging on Iphone – it just encourages flow

Actually I intend to publish  one of these conversations  I have had with Fiach Mac Conghail Director of the Abbey Theatre  as part of a narrative  about the Abbey and its essential roles and responsibilities as the National Theatre of Ireland. 

 But, as ever, most of  of my Iphone conversations remain strictly private, confidential and inaccessible.