My iPhone is my security blanket.
Before I go on, may I present you with this: : )
If you're like me, some part of your primordial heart, or the deepest part of your lizard brain, responded to this ; ) Some mysterious myocytes and neurons in your evolved being did a little jig. It's involuntary. Perhaps if you’ve got a healthy dose of cynicism you cringed as well, but I bet that damn smiley face still made you the slightest bit happy. It’s not our fault. Our brains are wired to recognize faces; knowing the emotional state of our approaching fellow men has helped our ancestors stay alive and continue as a species. We’re reading faces all the time, unconsciously scanning for signs that give us clues to what’s happening beneath the surface of features. Seeing a furrowed, angry brow or crinkling, happy eyes starts a cascade of internal responses in us, which instruct us to poise for threat or relax in safety. Humans are so adept at reading faces that we even read faces where there aren’t any to be read. That's why a colon and broken parentheses give us the impression of a friendly, toppled smile. It's also why Elvis and Jesus keep showing up on pieces of toast.
On Instagram one day I saw a blushing emoticon in response to a photo I had posted, and it warmed my heart. I realized that the written word—at least in some contexts—had been trumped, in this case by a bright yellow circle with rosy “cheeks”. That tiny digital face-print, its simple features arranged in just such a fashion to activate important pathways of emotional recognition, cuts to the chase, simply bypassing the long, meandering modes of communication of the past. Where we used to struggle with words to convey our sentiments, we can now transmit them via an image in a nanosecond. I’d like to call this just another easy trick in our bag of rhetorical devices, but can this minuscule, disarming digital flirtation even be called rhetoric if it’s devoid of artfulness?
Or perhaps the modes of communication engendered by social media in fact create new art forms, new tools for meaning making in our lives. Certainly my iPhone-woobie gives me plenty of opportunities to share the view from my little corner of the world. We can make and disseminate art on the go, even if it’s a quickly shared snapshot. Because of this immediacy what we share delivers an impression of authenticity—and therefore intimacy—even when we know that it’s been filtered and arranged.
Not only do we share in real-time, we are validated in real-time. We can have daily, hourly acknowledgment of our existence, thumbs-up proof that we’ve been seen and understood. Is this not a kind of art: processing and reconstituting the world through our unique sensibilities in the hopes that in turn our vision can be processed and validated by our fellow men?
I’m not equating my posting of a picture of my breakfast on Instagram with the writing of poetry (really though, those pancakes were so fluffy they needed to be seen), but some of the same human instincts are at work in both activities.
The problem is it’s too easy. My iPhone-woobie only goes so far in bringing me comfort (and might even distract me from more authentic forms available in the here-and-now). That emoticon quickly conveys an emotion, but it makes me lazy too. Why bother with these word-bloated sentences, these sentence-stuffed paragraphs, when I could just spend my time in the soft comfort of existence-validating images and smiley faces?
Writing a sentence takes time and certainly more effort than these two key strokes : ) It must be consciously constructed with bits and elements, sewn together with grammar and syntax, structured, built on known patterns. This knitting together goes slower than the speed of thought. I always found it odd when teachers would advise us to “write how you speak” because a well-written sentence does a lot more than transcribe mental speech. Good sentences are written how we would speak if we had more time to think, if we had time to luxuriate in thinking, to mull and cogitate, to taste and weigh words. Write like you speak? Just pick up the phone then. Teachers would also admonish us to cut out flowery language. Get to the point. Write lean, clean sentence; eliminate adverbs. Give us action, force, movement. But a sentence is not a sharp-shooter. At least not all the time.
Sentences can do more than shuttle facts from writer to reader. They can create matter. Give form to emotion and sensation as well as thought. Give shape to what’s murky below, coherence to inklings and internal mutterings. But this takes time and desire. And, it’s oh so easy to get rusty, especially when we’re spending so much quality time in our virtual worlds, weary thumbs working away.
So what if in a perfect world we found a balance between old and new forms of communication. Let’s say we carve out time for our social media flurries as well as long-and-slow sentences. But then we still need patient readers; because the making of meaning most often happens through the closing of that eternal gap between two people. And readers are readers because they have an appetite. They don’t stay full long. They move through art and want more because they know that making and intaking art is the stuff of life.
Hopefully our digital worlds do keep us hungry for more. Hopefully they don’t expand so much that we forget entirely that we are hungry. Maybe the deep impulse to create is so vital to what makes us human that we needn't worry about losing it. Maybe it too lives in our ancient heart and lizard brain, right next to that part of us that smiles back when we’re presented with : ) .