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The Generation Gap Between My Teeth

by Ian Huckabee on August 2, 2010

generation gap social mediaThe gap between my teeth was generational.  I was not yet seven, so I was years away from the tight teeth of my father. He had busied himself for months in our basement building a radio through which he would tap out Morse code night after night, sometimes connecting with a lone signaler several landmasses away. He would grit his teeth as he worked hard to remember his dots and dashes in real time; it was important to accommodate the experienced traveler on the other end.

A year later he would be the smallest business owner in the U.S. to install the IBM System/3, which was as large as a Manhattan kitchen and less powerful than an iPod Nano. A decade later he would bring home the Apple II, which originally sat on the kitchen table because furniture designers were not yet aware of the revolution.

In recent decades, I have witnessed the evolution of his PCs at work and on his desk at home and have found myself included in them as a folder. I occupy several rows in spreadsheets on family finances, and I hang childless from a digitally generated family tree.

Today, there is a gap between my niece’s teeth, but it’s narrower than mine was. Almost eight, she watches with envy as her older brother, ever occupied by his new cell phone, taps away with blurry thumbs to connect with friends several blocks away. Like Morse code, his language can be easily understood by a skilled reader. But unlike the rigid Morse, my nephew’s language evolves daily to include an increasingly private collection of acronyms and abbreviations and made-up words unique to him and his friends.

My niece doesn’t know it yet, but one day soon, when she begins to speak with her thumbs, if she likes she’ll be able to communicate in a language even her brother can’t understand.

The future is moving toward this generation more quickly than any other in history. We’re witnessing another of the great leaps forward, when human evolution is sign-posted by advances in communication. The emergence of modern human languages 50,000 years ago, Gutenberg’s creation of the modern printing press a short 560 years ago, and the capability to self-syndicate any social object – text, symbol, graphic, picture, video – have marked departure points for greater collective knowledge and awareness and have allowed for the brushing aside of barriers and the building of a new modernity.

The changes we’re seeing in language circumvent literacy, a step toward this new modernity. The clever arrangement of alphanumeric characters to form emoticons or to create some gr8 and efficient alternative representations returns symbolism to language and creates, indiscriminately for all, a visual context for thought and ideas.

For the youngest texters, cognitive abilities within a first language are still developing, so the playful use of a derivative language, an unrestrictive and imaginative language communicated on platforms that encourage innovation and deviation, is more than social. It’s evolutionary. Idioms are compressed into symbols, humor is understood earlier, syntax is not, and so semantic development occurs seemingly lawlessly among a population that will one day write and rewrite the laws that will govern more than just language.

There are many who don’t take comfort in this, and they are typically at the other end of this generation gap. They are the generation who were taught by their parents that language stood still, that neologisms were to enter language slowly if at all and to remain capitalized or hyphenated, and their daily usage was often challenged by a parent or a teacher who regulated attempts at evolving language by pulling from the shelf a dust-free dictionary.

Now the dictionary has become a lagging indicator. It is more often accessed from online spell checkers than slid from shelves. Increasingly, we dispense with words when they present barriers, and turn instead to symbols. The speed with which symbolism imparts understanding is amplified exponentially by the fiber that wraps the globe, and so in this connected world derivative language fills the communication gap. Through the added use of symbols, communication happens faster and more often, and missed meaning is made up for in repetition.

Much of this repetition is recorded for the ages. The younger generation is the first that will find it difficult to lose touch with their friends along the way. Digital breadcrumbs will keep it connected, good or bad, and it will never know what it’s like, for instance, to lose track of siblings during wartime, as happened with my grandfather who was separated from his two brothers for seven decades. Thanks to the Salvation Army, they were reunited, and a fanfare played out in newspapers across England.

The world ahead for the young generation will be one less of individual strategy than of collective reasoning as derivative language opens new pathways for opinions and understanding and empathy and compassion and facts. This generation will define the post-cyber age by globally addressing time-sensitive and relevant social issues.

My father and I still communicate the old-fashioned way, through email. He has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, two PCs and a Blackberry. We text each other occasionally, but our patterns and methods of communicating with each other are pretty much set. Still, we’re both amazed at how recently we marveled at the utility of punch cards and dots and dashes.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

DazzlinDonna August 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I’m probably somewhere close to your generation. My second job was to enter data into a punch card machine, and then carry the box of punched cards across campus to the computer lab, where the cards were fed into a machine to be read and stored onto huge tape reels. How many times do you think I tripped, dropped the box of cards, so that they fell out of the box and out of order, ensuring that I had to start all over and punch a new box of cards? Twice. Twice was more than enough.

I like to think that even at my age, I’m staying a little ahead of the rest of my generation. I embrace new technology – and even though I was an English major, graduate, and teacher – I embrace the idea that language is meant to communicate. If that communication involves words like gr8, u, and brb, I’m good with that. Whatever brings us together is all that matters.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. It was a gr8 ride. ;)

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Cheryl Leone August 3, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Today 4 generations, first time in history, working side by side. Each has so much to learn from the other. If it were not for the digital age, all of my family, both near and far, would not be so in tune with “Aunt Cheryl” or “Great Aunt Cheryl.” And my life is filled with “I love you’s”, “Hang Tuff”, and “Wait until you meet Aunt Cheryl”. As a young 66 year old I think we traditionalist already have it down pat. We just need you all to teach us ALL the tools. Okay, I admit I threw my Blackberry out in the driveway … hmmm. But I want an iPad, and I read on my Sony Reader. What will my great GRAND nieces do! Let me see … to get this to you I just hit SUBMIT, right?

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Kate Spiers, Wisdom London August 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

Ian,

Brilliantly written and thoughtfully put. I’m currently mulling over a blog post about the pace of change and this reminds me of how scope and scale cannot be entirely quantified until it’s happened. Put it this way, a year ago my life was very different and I could not have foreseen in August ’09 how it has turned out…and it makes me feel genuinely excited and hopeful for where August ’11 will see me, Wisdom London, marketing, the economy, society… Taking your example reminds us that the pace of change won’t abate, and in actual fact, the future is already here…being shaped in every new transaction, thought, idea, email or SMS. That is beyond exciting!

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Mary Clanahan September 2, 2010 at 8:37 am

As always when reading your work, I read this with the energy of one reaching for the rip cord too late. You write so very well.

“… when she begins to speak with her thumbs, if she likes she’ll be able to communicate in a language even her brother can’t understand.”

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Ian Huckabee February 11, 2011 at 9:51 am

Thanks, Mary. That’s really kind of you to say.

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Ellen April 27, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Nice work, Ian. I too remember cards.

And let’s not forget Skype

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Wilma Crudo April 3, 2012 at 2:48 am

I’ve put your web site on my StumbleUpon account. And I emailed this one post of yours to a several friends of mine.

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Ian Huckabee April 3, 2012 at 7:57 am

Thanks, Wilma. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

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Russian dolls August 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

Truly reasonable write-up .. simple and easy towards the point.

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