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Sunday, 16 August 2009

When the Signals Don't Get Through

(Nothing to do with the subject, but I wish I had seen this in a flier for The London Review of Booksbefore posting my piece on Lies, Damned Lies and My Comments on Your Blog, this quote from John Mason Brown: To many people criticism must seem like an attempt to tattoo soap bubbles. And this one from C.G. Lightenburg: A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to peer out.)

Recently, Doreen, who is not only my wife, but also the chief communications officer for the whole extended family, found herself lumbered (I think is the appropriate word) with the responsibility for agreeing the details with other close family members for a long weekend we were planning to spend with them. Our daughter and son-in-law had also been invited along, so it was a three-way task to set it all up. Because we all (they all!) lead very busy lives, the arranging was done by text. At some point our daughter suggested a modification to the arrangements, from which point it all went pear-shaped.

Obviously, I am not going into all the details or lay blame, if only because I think that actually, no one was to blame - unless it be he who invented texting in the first place!Certainly, I have no doubt but that the devil was in the texting. The messages conveyed adequately enough what each was thinking, but not what they felt about the suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, surely, is in the nature of text messaging, which on th evidence of this experience needs to be used with some caution. I understand that it came into being when engineers working to establish networks in the early days hit upon the idea of using the spare capacity in the system to communicate with each other. It woud have been fine for such use, is fine for short, factual communications, but cannot handle the complexities of human emotions.

Recently we had a spot of boiler trouble. At intervals of increasing frequency there would come a noise like an express training coming towards us out of a long tunnel and then hitting the platform, at which point hot water would cascade freely from the overflow over the conservatory below.

We have a maintenance contract with one of the Utility companies. I have to say I was impressed by their efforts on our behalf. They came almost daily over a long period of time, making changes to this or that, replacing something else, eventually reduced to trying things by trial and error. At one point the engineer thought new pipes from the control centre to the tank in the attic might help, as the existing ones meandered from past modifivcations to the system. He laso thought that the vent pipe, which was of a narrower bore than the others should be the same size. I had for some time thought the pipe work a little on the crazy side, so readily agreed. And a MagnaClean, he said to take the sludge out of the system... Okay, I said These changes though, were enhancement not repairs, so had to be paid for. We stumped up, he came and very efficiently did all the work agreed, and before he had collected up his tools, the train came out of the tunnel once more.

He brought in the lead engineer, who thought a self-ventinc valve to replace the manuel one in the airing cupboard and maybe the boiler needed a new P.C.B. It did. It has worked perfectly since. He explained: the boiler wasn't switching off because the signl wasn't coming through from the P.C.B.

It's not all bad, of course. We now have an enhanced system, though in actual fact, this consists in the main of a MagnaClean, looking something like a cross between a bunion and a jar of coffee protruding from the boiler's return pipe just above the microwave - a space once reserved for trays, but now not available to us. It may be enhancing the system but it sure aint enhancing the kitchen.

Back to the business of texting. It occurs to me to wonder whether the degree to which we have come to rely on these very convenient short messages has not imparied to some extent our abilty to read the signals that more extended language forms usually provide. We do not provide the redundancy of language which often acts as the carrier. We do not think about them when we write and so do not look for them when we read. Our politicians, for example, are for ever complaining that their message is not getting through. Well, maybe at times it doesn't deserve to, and at other times the complaint is an excuse, but often it is patently obvious that, for good or ill, they are at least correct in that: the message is not getting through.The hysteria in The States over President Obama's Health plans - and the ludicrous way in which the British NHS has become embroiled in it is a case in point.


Tabor said...

A lot to think about and thanks for putting into words my fears and agonies over Twitter and Instant Messaging communications. I may blog about this someday regarding and IM flight issue.


what a great post!!!!! and you are SO right about the whole communications thing with texting etc reducing by its very nature our own emotional intellectual capacity for communicating at all, let alone correctly to convey that which we are attempting to say - or - rather than a texting issue is it simply a human issue - a sign of the time - a sign of the world where humans are mechanized in every way and simply do not wish to speak from their hearts - from their intellect - from their being - or - most likely a combination of it all - but nevertheless a sad state of affairs - literally and figuratively -

hope said...

I don't Text or Twitter for that very reason...you can't always CLEARLY communicate what you mean in so few words. Besides, the art of writing is being lost to shorthand misspellings of the worst kind.

Okay, I personally cannot communicate in so few words. I'm glad I have you for company. :)

Carl said...

Hi Dave-
I even find this at work with email.. Often after a lot of back and forth by email I find picking up the phone and speaking to the person prevents issues and problems that would come up reading (or not reading) tone and intent in the emails.


steven said...

hi dave, oddly (to my family and friends) i don't have a cellphone, don't text, don't twitter, i e-mail, lengthy epistles that i try to write as if i was talking - one way of course - but talking through the words. i think that texting reduces the complexities - emotional and linguistic - even further than the loss of body and eye-language already does with any form of non-physical communication. have a peaceful day. steven

readingsully2 said...

You are usually so detailed, Dave, and I was happily reading along to find out what happened because of the texting and then nothing. AAAAhhhhh!

We have a leak at the moment where we can't seem to find source of the leak....AHGGGGG!!!!

Off the subject...what is your wonderful insight into Obama's new health plan? You are using initials that mean nothing to me.HHHHHMMMMMMMM?

ladytruth said...

I particularly liked the comment on the soap bubbles and tattoos and the book being a mirror; need to keep those in mind next time I need to critique someone's work ;)

Eryl said...

I really do think that politicians need to rethink the ways in which they deliver their messages if they are not getting through. One can't blame an intended recipient for not receiving.

Love the quotations at the start of this post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think one of the problems I have with texting is my vocabulary. Back in the sixties everything was either 'hot' or 'cool' often both as the same time and yet people seemed to understand that there were subtle differences depending on when they were used. Similarly today arbitrary words get assigned these special roles – 'boss' is one that fell out of favour in the sixties but seems to be back in fashion now.

It's not that kids are unfeeling, the very opposite in fact, feelings are screaming out of them most of the time but they're not very sensitive to them. Just think about how a baby will appear to overact to a given situation. That's because they're little switches, 'on' or 'off'. Some grey will have seeped into that world by puberty but it was years after that before I started to search for new and different words to express the wide spectrum of feelings I was capable of experiencing. That search goes on, raking through dictionaries looking for that precise word to include in my expressions: 'I love' and 'I hate' fell into disuse years ago except as tokens for the hearer to built assumptions from.

Unknown said...

Language is always dynamic and changing. I was sitting in the hopital waiting room, reading a cartoon in a political magazine, I cannot remember which magazine. I wanted to steal the magazine and photocopy the cartoon. The scene was a spelling bee and the child in the hotseat was asked to spell the word "later". The image showed he spelled, "L-8-R".
I laughed out loud and thought of you, dear Dave! Texting indeed!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I bet the glass on your conservatory roof has never been so clean. Like the thought of an express train roaring through your plumbing though. As to texting - I don't ever do it - but surely it is an improvement on Chinese whispers.

Titus said...

I take your well-made points Dave, but as a basic medium for communication (anyone over 25 can only use texting for that, and we're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise) it's a brilliant tool. A simple "?" (translation: get your backside home as soon as humanly possible) to my husband when he has passed his ETA conveys all I want it to, and always gets the required reply. I think it's a tool, we should use it for the job it's fit for, and leave it at that.
Enjoyed the boiler interlude, though I expect you didn't.

Helen said...

I am SO glad I haven't succumbed to the lure of texting or twittering .. blogging and email are quite enough for this old woman.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Sometimes, Dave, less is not more.texting and even email are fraught with monotone pitfals and dangers.If it's worth saying, say it face to face, or at least by telephone.Love the descriptions of your reprobate heating system- join the club, ours is causing me a nervous breakdown. :)

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, as far as boiler matters are concerned I had in autumn 2008 a lot of troubles and not at all a fair behaviour as in your case, for beaurocratic reasons they actually forced us to change the old heater, which worked perfectly and buy a new one with super-safety appliances but which has problems inserted in a huge Venetian chimney in the house where we live, it was a chimney of a bakery...

Friko said...

I hate texting!
As for the boiler, if you, and they, say so. Way above this silly little woman's head. Glad it all worked out.

Rosaria Williams said...

Texting? We might as well get in the game; though, it will evolve into something else pretty soon.


YES! This communications things reducing capacity for nice communicating , mechanized is the term,you can't have a cleary communicate on few words.I hope the art of writing dont lost
the great complexities emotional and linguistic .

Karen said...

I don't text or "tweet", as they say. I am, however, hopelessly addicted to email and blogging. That's enough for me.

Tara McClendon said...

And then there are times when you know exactly what a person means in a text--especially when accompanied by *eyeing dumb idiot* or some emoticon. :] Great quote about books being mirrors...can I share that at my critique group.

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

Having a fifteen year old Granddaughter and a twelve year old Grandson, test messaging is an adventurous journey through a maze of symbols, acronyms and at times indecipherable abbreviations. There is however, found joy in the very faith they have in me to be able to follow and understand their text messages. OMG! LOL!!

Dick said...

I'm impressed by the quality of service from your boiler engineers, Dave. So close is it to being without precedent that, as with Basil Fawlty responding to news of a satisfied guest at the Towers, I'd suggest having them stuffed!

Dave King said...

I look forward to reading your post if you do blog on it. Thanks.

Yes, we seem to have this in-built capacity for going overboard about every new technological device that comes along. Thanks for your response.

I also do not Twitter and very seldom text, except to my grandsons. (I see the government has appointed a twitter Czar! Wonder what he will do!)
Thanks for the compliment - though I am not quite sure why that makes you glad to hav e me for company! Still, I'll take it as a compliment.)

I can quite believe it. Although you can write more expansively with email, I think we get trapped into this SMS frame of mind.

I think that is absolutely the case. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.
Have a good day yourself.

I just thought it better not to divulge stiff in this instance. A leak with nothing coming out!

I thought them both funny and so true.

I agree. Thanks.

I have never thought of you as having a limited vocabulary, Jim. No way. Your final paragraph deserves the status of a post all to itself, I believe. Very telling points, and very fundamental ones. Thanks.

For someone texting that is correct, of course. That is how my grandsons would spell it if they were texting.

The Weaver of Grass
Yup, I guess it's one up from Chinese Whispers.

I am actually not against texting per se just against its exclusive use and its intrusive influence. I agree it's brilliant in its place.

Blogging and Email cover most eventualities. Texting's fine for conveying factual stuff if you are in a hurry - or strapped for cash!


Shadow said...

i think texting should be for little things, like 'get some milk on your way home'. e-mail and phone calls for more complicated things. but that's just me, the screens so little and the 'buttons' so small....

Tess Kincaid said...

My kids laugh at my slow texting abilities. I like texting for just a quick yes, no or "I'm okay".

On the other hand, I think the blogging phenomena has enabled us to express our thoughts in a rich and intensified way. A daily journal (our posts) combined with letters (our comments) excelled by the speed and extent of the internet is a wonderful form of enhanced communication.

ladytruth said...

I have an award waiting for you over at my blog ;)

hope said...

I meant because you still use COMPLETE sentences, in English. :)

Harlequin said...

Nice post.... it certainly underscores the need for attentiveness to how things are said as much as what is said. A mentor of mine says all the time: communication is the goal, not the ground. Amen.
as for brevity, it is the soul of wit... it just takes more time to be succinct and clear...amen again.

LR Photography said...

I really hope that we are going to a good health plan. This is not hysteria Dave. The nation is changing, and 'Yes We Can'.

Dave King said...

Not sure what happened to my reply last time, but here goes for another attempt!
I do agree with all those sentiments.
It was our boiler that was having the nervous breakdown - though we would have followed before too long!

I can see that happening. It is so of today!

It was way above everybody's head for far too long!

I am sure you are right. I await with bated breath to find out what.

That seems to be the general thought that is coming out of this. Difficult to swim against the tide all the time, though.

I too am a tweet-free zone, but do text occasionally.

Shar away, I have no copyright on it - unfortunately!

Rose Marie
Yes, I do know what you mean. We have had to master (in part) the art to keep up with grandsons - and even son and daughter-in-law.

I too was impressed. We had only recently switched to this particular outfit. It almost got to the stage of giving them a spare key. They didn 't just come next day, several times they were there within the hour.

Agreed. C U Shadow!

Couldn't agree more, even though I've never managed a daily journal and often struggle to keep up with the reading and the comments. All good fun, though.

V ery kind. I shall be there anon.

Yes, I see. Got it. Thanks hope.

I like your mentor's remark - and the soul of wit one; is that his also?

I hope so too. I was commenting more on what was being said about the NHS. It has its drawbacks, but the descriptions you were getting were of something else entirely.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

Glad you got the boiler fixed. I rarely text but am not averse to using "L8r" on occasion. I still tend to use capital letters and apostrophes, which sort of defeats the purpose! I think that, if one knows the sender very well, the intent/emotion should be clear. While some of us may see texting as impersonal, I'm sure there are those who can convey any and every emotion using its shorthand!

Jeanne Estridge said...

Did you know that soldier ants fan out at exactly 14 degrees from one another when they go on a mission? And that termites can build structures that rival the most complex edifices constructed by humans, using essentially just their scent glands to communicate?

Insects are very good at communication and humans, with all their technology, are really not.

Dave King said...

Maybe I shouldn't say it, but the boiler seems now like a bad dream(?)
Like you I use puctuation and caps when texting. It has never oggurred to me that it is as expressive as you suggest, but I guess that these days anything is possible!

I knew the second, not the first. Maybe we ought to small more! Than ks for that info, it all ehlps to make life a little more fascinating.

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