Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Pollux writes:

It’s September and school is back in session. Welcome to Professor Pipsqueak’s Computer Literacy 101 class. The instructor is about ten to eleven years old; he has to stand on a stack of books just to be seen. None of the students, who are many decades older than their teacher, dare to ask Professor Pipsqueak just exactly how old he is for fear that he will give them low marks. The instructor is ruthless like that.

The pace of technology is also ruthless, leaving behind in the digital dust generations who were just getting used to the concept of e-mail. Now they have to learn a whole new language, an electronic Esperanto that serves as a pseudo-linguistic bridge between the older and younger generations. Everything is acronyms and shortcuts these days, ranging from NSFW (“Not Safe for Work”) to FWIW (“For What It’s Worth”).

Ivan Brunetti’s September 7, 2009 cover for The New Yorker, called “Required Texts,” captures the confusion and puzzlement that greets some of the older generations when confronted by Internet Slang or tools like YouTube or iPods. It satirizes the need for someone who is not a part of Generation Y to catch up to their sons and grandsons.

As Brunetti did with his March 1, 2009 cover, called “Ecosystem,” each of his egg-headed little figures offers us an individual anecdote. As with any class, there are those who are learning more quickly than others.

In the bottom row, a roguish elder gentleman passes a note to a prospective sweetheart. His screen reads “IMHO <3” (“In My Honest Opinion… Love), while hers reads “NSFW BFF” (“Not Safe for Work—Best Friends Forever). One of his neighbors is less proficient; his screen is a swirl of angry lines. A woman plays a game of Solitaire, perhaps for the first time; another uses an iPod.

In the second row from the top, a determined, white-haired lady seems well-equipped for the Digital Age: she uses anti-carpal tunnel syndrome wrist supports, an ergonomic foot rest, and a glare-guard.

Another elderly woman, wearing a sweater depicting a cat (she knitted it herself), logs onto YouTube, perhaps to watch the video of President Obama reacting to the yelps of ill-bred Congressman Wilson. There is another gentleman using the Internet to his advantage: by visiting a Viagra site and buying its products.

Some of the students just don’t get it: one student uses a typewriter, another a quill and parchment. One student has simply given up and fallen asleep.

Perhaps some of the students are in class for a good reason: to keep an eye on, and to understand, what their children are up to. As one site warns, “There’s a new trend popular among teenage chatters, and your filters won’t pick up any of it. It’s called l33tspeak, netspeak or just plain internet slang (leet speak from the word elite). You know what I’m talking about. Acronyms like lol wtf bbiab and nm… If you’re concerned about your kids, it’s absolutely crucial you learn to understand their language.”

Adam Gopnik, in his book Through the Children’s Gate, captures the confusion caused by the communication barriers that existed between him and his son. As he records, Gopnik believed for a time that “LOL” stood for “Lots of Love.” “I could tell,” Gopnik writes, “because it occurred at the end of so many of his instant messages. So I sent it right back to him: LOL, Dad. LOL, Luke. I felt delighted. Whatever inevitable conflicts we might have, at the end of every one of these exchanges, we could still tell each other that we loved each other, and lots.”

When any new technology and its accompanying culture arrive, its adoption is piecemeal and gradual, or at least should be based on need rather than trends. We should not use an iPod just because everyone else is using one. Is it necessary for older generations to learn the nuances of writing Twitter updates that are less than 140 words? Or to read about the once mighty empire of Friendster? Do we really need to all be on the same (internet) page?

The knowledge of new technologies cannot always be divided neatly along generational lines. I am thirty years old, but I’ve never used an iPod or an iPhone. I don’t text regularly but know what IMHO and ROFLMAO stand for. I am on Facebook and sometimes I tweet.

My brother, also thirty years old, rarely uses e-mail (I must have received perhaps six e-mails from him over the course of my lifetime, each of them no more than a sentence long), has used YouTube once, but uses an iPod Shuffle.

My parents, on the other hand, use e-mail, but selectively and only when truly necessary. They write elegant electronic epistles with the same thought and labor that go into novel-writing. It would not do them any good to know the meaning of “LOL” because they have no real need to know its meaning. In any case, its meaning seems to transmute constantly.

As Bonnie Ruberg writes, “‘Lol’ has come to mean: I’m being playful; I’m just kidding; I’m flirty; I’m friendly. It tints everything around it with a certain joviality… Meaning is no longer meaningful. The pragmatics of the internet have shifted language use beyond real-life recognition.”

Sadness tints Brunetti’s image. It is about the perhaps pointless and hopeless struggle of generations to learn a new language. They are immigrants in a bewildering Digital Land. Sites warning parents to learn the language may not realize that Internet Slang changes from day to day. If a parent finally learned the meaning of GNOC (Get Naked on Cam), it may be too late—kids may have started using an entirely different term within weeks.

The sad thing is that many kids are not rushing to learn what the older generations know -namely, correct spelling. This flow of one-way traffic leads to illiteracy and term papers littered with acronyms. What is the percentage, I wonder, of students requiring remedial English classes in high school and at college?

The exchange of knowledge has become a one-sided affair. And there is nothing to LOL about that.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree