Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘communication’

times square by joshua davis photography

From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

Read Full Post »

Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

Read Full Post »

I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ’499′ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself - with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

Read Full Post »

We had a visit to Stonor Park recently. This is the house near Henley where St Edmund Campion was finally caught. It’s full of intricately constructed priest holes and escape routes. It’s also set in a valley of exquisite beauty in the Oxfordshire countryside, and worth a visit even if you are not into the martyrs or recusant history. See their website here for information about visiting.

St Edmund Campion, St Nicholas Owen and St Ralph Sherwin

The highlight for me, with all my interest in media and communication, was to visit the room on the second floor above the front door. This is where the famous printing press stood, on which Campion’s Decem Rationes was printed. It was wonderful to imagine them hidden up there, working without enough type, wondering whether they would even manage to finish and distribute the work. What faith it must have taken, and courage.

Forgive me copying some words from a previous post about Campion and the text, just in case you don’t know the story:

In the Spring of 1581, Edmund Campion had been in England as a Jesuit missionary for just over a year. Fifteen years earlier he had preached before Queen Elizabeth in Oxford, and now he was in Lancashire on the run from government spies. Between illicit sermons and undercover Masses Campion was writing a Latin treatise called Decem Rationes, Ten Reasons, in which he set forth the Catholic faith and challenged his compatriots to debate with him.

Kathleen Jones describes what happened when the manuscript was finished: “It was extremely difficult to get this work printed. Eventually the work was carried out on a secret press at the house of Dame Cecilia Stonor in Stonor Park, Berkshire. Lady Stonor was later to die in prison for her part in this enterprise. Owing to a shortage of type, the treatise had to be set one page at a time, and it took half a dozen typesetters (dressed as gentlemen to disarm suspicion) nine weeks to set it. On Oxford’s Commemoration Sunday, 27 June 1581, four hundred copies were found distributed on the benches of the university church. The publication of Decem Rationes caused a tremendous sensation, and efforts to capture Campion were redoubled” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, Liturgical Press, 2000, 12:3).

You can guess why I wanted to re-tell this well-known story today. We’ve come here to celebrate World Communications Day, and by chance we are doing this on the feast of the Martyrs of England and Wales. It provides a wonderful opportunity to connect these two themes of Christian witness and social communication.

The story of Edmund Campion shows us that any Christian who wants to witness to their faith beyond their immediate circle of family and friends will need to use the communications media. Not just to use them reluctantly, but to embrace them with a passion. For Campion, this meant the printing press. I love the historical detail that they didn’t have enough movable type to set the whole book. Can you imagine the frustration, and the consequent dedication that was required: to set one page, to print it; then to reshuffle type, and print the next page. Six men holed away in a Berkshire manor house for two months. And then the audacity of smuggling the printed texts into Oxford.

Are we, as the Church today, completely engaged with the communications media? Are we realising its potential for good? Are we putting our energy and intelligence into using the media effectively? Our time and people and money? What would Edmund Campion be doing today to communicate his Ten Reasons?

[Andrew Webb adds: I think Campion was arrested at Lyford Grange, not Stonor]

Read Full Post »

Lucy Kellaway gets nostalgic whenever she thinks of the prehistoric flip-chart pad and its unwieldly aluminium legs.

She has managed not to use PowerPoint as a presenter, even though she has been forced to watch more PowerPoint slides than she can count.

And what have I got from the experience? It is hard to say because my default reaction has been to blank it. I can’t remember one single slide that I’ve ever been shown. And as I must have been shown hundreds of thousands of them altogether, a hit rate of zero seems rather on the low side. This doesn’t mean I’ve never sat through a good PowerPoint presentation. But when I have, it has been because the person speaking managed to get a message across despite the distracting visual clamour going on behind them.

The Anti PowerPoint party has attempted to calculate the economic damage of gawping at all these slides and has concluded that Europe wastes €110bn a year from people sitting though dull presentations.

I suspect the true figure is even worse, as this ignores the secondary effects. PowerPoint must be the least enjoyable way of wasting time there is; a heavy slideshow can leave one feeling grumpy and passive and in no frame of mind for proper work.

Worse, it lowers the quality of discussion and leads to bad decisions. PowerPoint performs the miracle of making things simultaneously too simple and too complicated. It reduces subtle ideas to bullet points, while it encourages you to pad out a presentation with irrelevant data because cutting and pasting is far too easy.

The APPP is hoping to fight PowerPoint through peaceful means; it wants lots of journalists to write articles just like this one. Even if lots do, I hold out little hope of success. The seminal, devastating article on the subject, PowerPoint is Evil, was written by Edward Tufte in 2003 and published in Wired. And what has happened since then? Nothing, except that PowerPoint has gone on getting bigger.

Persuading everyone to stop using PowerPoint is going to be much harder than persuading them, say, to reuse plastic bags or get the loft insulated. People cling to it for three powerful reasons. First, because everyone else does. Second, because it is much easier than writing a proper speech, where you have to think carefully about what you are saying ahead of time. Third, and most important, PowerPoint assuages speakers’ nerves – standing in a room with low lights, dumbly following prompts on a screen is not all that frightening.

Kellaway thinks the APPP is too tame, and needs to resort to direct action:

…which would advocate cutting the wire in the middle of the table that connects the laptop to the projector. Or it could help people tamper with slides, inserting at random ones that said: “HERE IS ANOTHER DULL SLIDE” or showed a picture of people fast asleep.

Better still would be to campaign for an outright ban. In a world without the crutch of PowerPoint, presentations would be fewer in number – people would be put off by nerves and by the hard slog of preparation – and shorter. It might even mean that audiences listened. The human voice, especially when connected to a brain that has done some thinking, and a body that has done some rehearsing, can be a wonderful, memorable thing.

What’s your experience as a presenter or as someone on the receiving end? Is this just a needless rant from a bunch of technological luddites? Or a genuine insight into the way we have been duped into using something we don’t want and don’t really need?

Most Catholic churches in this country don’t have a screen and projector mounted in the sanctuary, but I’ve been to a service in the US where an evangelical preacher used PowerPoint slides to illustrate his sermon. I liked it! But don’t worry – I wouldn’t want it during Mass…

Read Full Post »

I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

Read Full Post »

Fr Ronald Rolheiser writes about our addiction to being digitally connected:

And so we are, daily, becoming more enslaved to and more compulsive in our use of mobile phones and the Internet. For many of us it is now existentially impossible to take off a day, let alone several weeks, and be on a genuine holiday. Rather, the pressure is on us to constantly check for texts, e-mails, phone messages and the like. The expectation from our families, friends, and colleagues is precisely that we are checking these regularly. The sin du jour is to be, at any time, unavailable, unreachable or non-communicative.

He quotes some friends who work in Christian ministry on Sunday mornings, but then begin to celebrate their own digital sabbath in the late afternoon on Sunday:

We start our celebration of the Sabbath at 4 PM on Sunday and we begin it symbolically by unplugging our computers, turning of our mobile phones, disconnecting our hour phone and turning off every information gadget that we own. For the next 29 hours we don’t receive any calls and we don’t make any. We are on a cyber-fast, non-contactable, of the wheel, unavailable.

At 9 PM on Monday night we end our Sabbath as we began it, symbolically. We break our cyber-fast and fire up again our phones and our computers and begin answering our messages. We get back on the wheel for another week.

Sometimes making ourselves unavailable like this irritates our families and friends, but if we are to celebrate Sabbath, given our pressured lives, this pulling away is the most important single thing that we have to do.

He ends the article with this wonderful quotation from the mystic poet Rumi:

I have lived too long where I can be reached!

[The Catholic Herald, 18 Feb, p 20]

Read Full Post »

Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

Read Full Post »

A friend introduced me to a branch of psychology called ‘self-determination theory’. It looks at how human beings grow and mature in the context of their relationships and their social environment.

The theory suggests that there are three basic needs that we all have in our journey towards psychological maturity and well-being: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

‘Autonomy’ is our need to be ourselves, to have a sense of freedom and responsibility for who we are and for the choices we make. ‘Relatedness’ is our need to connect with others, in love and friendship; and the need to belong in wider ways, through different types of community and communication. ‘Competence’ highlights the fact that it is not enough just to discover ourselves or to belong. We also need to have a purpose, a role, a skill, something to contribute to a bigger project. It’s not just that we want to be valued in the subjective eyes of others; we also want to be objectively valuable.

I found this very useful, thinking about the different kinds of social environments I have belonged to in my life, and the subtle motivations and needs that have been in play there: in my family, school, college, workplace, seminary, parish, etc. All three basic needs have been present, jostling with each other, often hardly acknowledged. What happens if one need is not met? If you have lots of personal freedom but no commitment to others? If you give and receive lots of love but have nothing worthwhile to do? If you have much to give but no-one to give it to? 

It struck me that the different needs are represented by our names. I know how much the tradition of naming varies in each culture. Your first name is personal. It’s not unique (there are many Stephens in the world), but it points to your individuality within your own family, to your autonomy. Your surname is your family name; it signifies your relatedness to your family in the present, and to the family as it extends back into the past – but often only on your father’s side! And many surnames used to represent your competence, your social role: Smith, Potter, Thatcher, Fisher, Cook, Bowman, Mason, etc.

And what about middle names? Quite often in Britain a middle name is a way of connecting an individual with a particularly loved relation, e.g. an uncle or aunt, a grandfather and grandmother. Or it’s just another random personal name. The Chinese custom is particularly interesting. You are given a personal name, the same as in Britain. But you are also given a generational name – something we don’t have in the British tradition. It’s a name given to all the males or females in your generation, across the extended family. So if you are a boy, you share this generational name with your brothers and with all your male first cousins. If you are a girl, you share a different name with all your sisters and with all your female first cousins. It shows this extra level of relatedness within the family.

Read Full Post »

I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

Read Full Post »

You wire yourself up. You switch the computer on. You lie back in your leather recliner. And then your ‘surrogate’ steps out of the closet and steps into the world. This is a sophisticated robot that looks and sounds like you – without the wrinkles. Everything the surrogate experiences you also experience. Everything you choose to ‘do’ in your own mind is actually done through the surrogate in the real world. You have all of the experience without any of the risks: no disease, no knife crime, no car crashes; or rather, when the crashes happen you just get another surrogate.

tin robot by Dirty Bunny.

This is the premise of the latest Bruce Willis film Surrogates, which is far more entertaining and intriguing than most reviews let on. The special effects are unimpressive; the production values are not very high; the acting is almost non-existent. But it’s a very tightly constructed plot that keeps you thinking through every scene; and the twist at the end brings a kind of epiphany about what it is to be human that moved me far more than I expected.

The idea of living through a surrogate is a clever one. We hear so much today about the attractions and dangers of living in a ‘virtual’ world – when we ‘leave’ our physical environment and get lost in a digital reality that seems quite divorced from the real world. But this film is about something more subtle: living ‘virtually’ in the real world.

Of course we do this all the time. We show a certain face, we project a certain image. We choose our clothes, our hairstyle, the frames for our glasses. We walk and talk in a certain way. I choose a title and a banner photo for my blog! These are all good things. And we would be naive to think that people become more truly themselves if they are simply stripped of the external expressions of their personality. The very word ‘person’ means ‘mask’ in Greek – as if our innermost being is inseparable from the outward expressions of who we are.

Mask by liber.

But there is always the question of how much this mask helps someone to know me, and how much it hides me; whether it allows authenticity or stifles it. Bruce Willis faces a crisis when he realises that he and his wife are only capable of communicating with each other through their surrogates (I won’t give any more plot away…). I don’t think we should just abandon all the social habits we have adopted over the years – it’s these concrete aspects of culture that make us human. But it would be good to ask more often what is really helping us to communicate with others, and what is getting in the way.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,172 other followers

%d bloggers like this: