Will Facebook eventually evolve to offer its users telepathic forms of communication? That’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s hope, according to a Q&A session he hosted with Facebook users earlier this year. “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” he told them. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.”
William Davies responded to Zuckerberg’s words over at The Atlantic on Friday, and offered some thoughts of his own on the subject:
“Brain-to-brain” communication may still be confined to university labs for the time being, but workplaces are filling up with other forms of physiological monitoring that accomplish roughly the same thing.
Lurking beneath the push toward these technologies is a relentless attack on language as unreliable and misleading. The boom in affective computing and wearables—and the various “smart” infrastructures that interface with these technologies—is driven by the promise of access “real” emotions and“real” desires, accompanied by ways of transmitting these via non-verbal codes.
Alan Jacobs added some comments of his own yesterday, first sharing a Jaron Lanier quote: “You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?”
Jacobs adds, “In this sense, the degradation of personhood is one of Facebook’s explicit goals, and Facebook will increasingly require its users to cooperate in lowering their standards of intelligence and personhood.”
Both Davies and Jacobs’s comments indicate that there is a fundamental understanding of human nature as being caught up in and intertwined with logos—the spoken and written word. Without the use of words to communicate or express ourselves, we lose something very fundamental to our natures, replacing it with a counterfeit and potentially dangerous mechanism of communication.
But why does logos matter?
First, it allows for serendipitous, individual, original expression. If you compare the writings of Joseph Conrad to those of Ernest Hemingway, or the sonnets of Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, this should be abundantly clear. These are “messy” forms of language, Nicholas Carr writes at Rough Type in response to Davies, whereas online social media “encourage people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance, or Like buttons.” Yet the messy is also incalculably diverse, personal, and beautiful. It’s what culture is built upon. Its unpredictability is arguably one of its main attractive features.
Additionally, words allow for intimacy—both inner privacy, and interpersonal specificity. In the most obvious way, it allows the self to keep some thoughts private. Zuckerberg’s new mode of communication would destroy that inner barrier, and with it, an important layer of self-awareness and quiet that is integral to privacy and self knowledge.
In the realm of spoken communication, words also allow us a layer of specificity and privacy that online communication often does not. We have slowly learned that what we put on the internet is there pretty much forever. So there’s a layer of privacy removed by mere form. But even the words (or lack of words) we now use have removed layers of personal connection. The poem gave us endless layers of depth and particularity. The sonnet, for instance, is a particular form of romantic communication. Synonyms, allegory, insides jokes, puns—all of them can actually be ways to personalize and cater your language to fit the circumstances or person you’re addressing.
Now, with emojis and emails, it seems we’ve cut a layer of intimacy and privacy out from beneath us. We use hashtags in order to make our messages as shareable, general, and popular as possible. We use acronyms and emoticons to generalize and simplify—rather than clarify and deepen—our communication. It may seem old-fashioned, but you’ll never be able to convince me that an email is as soul-touching as a handwritten letter. Emoji Dick will never be able to replace Herman Melville’s stunning lines, “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”
Which leads to the final point: logos allows for truth and beauty. Humans long for these things. It’s part of who we are. We are always striving for the true, the good, the beautiful. Words are uniquely suited to help us discover all three, through their combination of communication, logic, and form. Their ability to connect us obviously offers opportunity for important closeness and community—goods that we would be miserable and bereft without. But they also enable us to discover new thoughts and navigate difficult truths. Our minds are often emotional, fraught with chaos and insecurity. Words bring light to our inner doubts. They often bring comfort and solace. Through lovely, intricate, and heartfelt expression, they give us a taste of lasting beauty.
Facebook’s telepathic future (if it ever comes to pass) will never be able to replace those moments of heartfelt debate with one’s closest friends, that first time a lover is able to muster up the words “I love you,” the quiet hours with family interrupted by bursts of laughter over old, well-known jokes and memories. Words are an integral part of who we are. Why would we ever choose to stop using them?