Psycho Babble

Language in an Age of Seamlessness

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What happens to conversation when everyone’s using a different device?

By Jessica Love


 

In the beginning, my now-husband was an enigma. In person he was warm and open, but over the phone—we mainly texted back and forth—he was a fortress. My texts said: I’m clever and interesting and thoughtful and I like you but I’m definitely not desperate. His texts said: K.

Underlying his inscrutability, I finally learned, was what appeared to be a Rorschach inkblot that had taken residence under the screen of his cell phone. “Why didn’t you tell me your stupid screen was broken?” I remember asking, with a few clever and interesting expletives thrown in for good measure.

Language is ripe with conventions, and though they can differ drastically from one situation or medium to the next, they are generally understood—or at the very least understood to be understood—by everyone involved. Thus, most of us take care to manage expectations when the unexpected arises. “Sorry, I’m losing my voice,” our waitress warns. (Don’t lowball your tip just because I don’t sound peppy.) “I’m taking a vacation from Facebook,” a friend cautions. (I won’t be “liking” everything you post.) “I will be out of the office through the end of the month,” a coworker auto-replies. (Unless you are really important, I’m not going to respond to your email until August.)

Increasingly, though, we must also manage expectations about the very devices we use to communicate. It is no longer obvious whether, say, an email was typed on a smart phone, a tablet, or a computer—or perhaps composed using a mobile dictation application, or something else altogether (something with a broken screen!). And yet, as they’ve always been, our messages are very much shaped by the method we use to communicate them.

Consider the “Sent from my iPhone” message that now accompanies so many emails. I actually welcome it as a caveat of sorts: I’m typing using the teeny keyboard on my phone, it says—my response may be abrupt and error-prone.  (And the caveat works!  Journalist Clive Thompson describes a 2012 study demonstrating that people who send emails with spelling and grammatical errors are deemed more credible when their sendoff is trailed by “Sent from my iPhone” than when it is not.)

Not all of a device’s frictions are immediately apparent, which makes them all the more unsettling when they exert their influence. On the iPhone keyboard, for instance, accessing the “<”character requires searching through two different sets of symbols. Pity the lover whose beloved switches to an iPhone and no longer ends each message with a “<3.”

The limitations of our technology will become more apparent as communications become ever more seamless (which is to say unfettered from reminders of where one device ends and another begins), with conversations taking place across multiple devices with very different capabilities. Devices are also increasingly short-lived. It took more than a century for the word processor to replace the typewriter, but I very likely haven’t even heard of some the devices I will be using a decade from now.

Eventually a system will emerge—a system, one hopes, less intrusive or commercial than today’s “Sent from my iPhone” fix—to help us convey the particularities of our communication tools. Think devicons: emoticons, but for devices instead of emotions.

 

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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