The 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.