View Electronic Edition

Communication Prosthetics: Threat, or Menace?

I was talking recently to a novelist friend who doesn't get out much, and who (like most of our breed) likes it that way. But after a decade or more of working by himself, he had taken a temporary job that involved working with fellow human beings (FHBs).

I asked him how it was going. He seemed uncomfortable. No, no, the people were just fine, he insisted, and he loved the project. But something was bothering him.

"Neal," he finally said, "have you ever heard of this thing called...a Powerpoint Presentation?"

I confessed that I had. But this was no time to strike the pose of Mr. Cool, man of the world, been-there-done-that. I needed to let the poor guy ventilate. He was traumatized. Confronting the reality of Powerpoint was a moment of pure existential horror for him.

I was able to talk him out of his funk with the following rationale: outside of the tiny, cloistered world of novelists, most people have to work with fellow human beings. Which means communicating with them. But communicating with FHBs is hard. Some can do it by drawing pictures, others by interpretive dance, oratory, cinema, or sonnets. But some can't. Thus Powerpoint. To people who can't communicate, it is what the dialysis machine is to people who don't have kidneys.

In truth, I just made this up on the spur of the moment to talk my friend down off his existential ledge. But since then I have begun to notice other Communications Prosthetics (CPs). They show up most often in the business environment, so crowded with people who can't discharge their responsibilities without communicating with FHBs.

I suspect that the whiteboard is also a Communications Prosthetic. It does the same thing as a plain old-fashioned chalkboard. But its noisome pens spew xylene fumes into the air, bursting small blood vessels in the eye, dissolving mucous membranes, triggering migraine headaches, and making everyone giddy and out of focus. A used-up, dried-out pen cannot be distinguished from a fresh one until you pick it up and try to write with it, whereas from ten yards away you can tell how much chalk is left in a piece of chalk. The only thing that the whiteboard has going for it is spurious New Economy sleekness, and more vivid colors in which to scrawl inane bubble diagrams.

To paraphrase the old saw about pornography, I can't define what a CP is, but I know it when I see it. Every English teacher who has read a poorly structured student essay that employs twenty-five different typefaces in four different colors, every web surfer who has gotten lost in a flashy commercial website, every recipient of an Internet greeting card (or a paper one, for that matter, everyone who has tried to make sense of a brochure cluttered with clip art, or to get work done using a Kafkaesque graphical user interface, knows.

CPs are about abdication of judgment. If you are writing a document on a manual typewriter, you are forced to make choices. If you are penning a sonnet in Elizabethan London, you must think very hard before you touch your ink-laden bird feather to that sheet of expensive paper. If you are trying to get 100 musicians to play your symphony, you had better have your ducks in a row before you walk into the hall with an armload of scores. If you are turning a huge block of marble into a sculpture, you'd best know exactly what you are about before you let fly with that hammer. But in the world of CPs, paper is free, musicians are synthesized robots who never complain, and blocks of marble are endowed with unlimited Undo. It creates the illusion that the nasty, old-fashioned requirement to make all those damned choices has been done away with.

The only fly in the ointment is that we have not yet been able to create a digital audience. If you were talking to a digital audience, and noticed that they had, in the last few moments, become hopelessly confused, you could just hit Undo a few times and restore them to their previous state of mental clarity.

Terminally confused audiences could be dragged to the Trash and replaced with fresh ones.

But as matters stand, we must put up with the same analog audiences that Shakespeare wrote plays and Beethoven wrote symphonies for: audiences that can't be Trashed and that throw tomatoes at you when they are unhappy.

The trend is not all bad, however. A while ago I got a cellphone endowed with the ability to receive text messages. But there was a limit: each message could be no more than a couple of hundred characters. What good was such a thing? After some playing around, I found that most haikus were short enough to sneak in under that limit. Now I'm thinking about a perl script that would monitor all of my incoming email and reject all messages that were not correctly formatted haikus. It would get rid of long-winded messages, and filter out spam too. Most spam, anyway....

Internet Sherlock

Learn your enemies' secrets

Banned in fifty states.