Our first attempts at written communication were with burnt sticks on cave walls. We told each other about the big game we had hunted. In Egypt we got much cleverer and developed a complex set of hieroglyphs to perpetuate our thoughts and experiences for others to read at a later time. The Chinese were cleverly beavering away developing pictographs – little images that represented objects, and ideograms – more little pictures, this time representing concepts. All of these are logographs – little pictures that represent the ideas and things we want to communicate to others. Perhaps the biggest problem with logograms is that they tell us nothing about how to pronounce them.
It was around 1500BC when the Phoenicians decided to take a different route and develop an alphabet – a system of writing where the symbols each represented the sounds of the spoken language. That’s how we write today. We string sounds together to make words, and words together to make sentences.
This was a profound change because it changed our brains and how we think. The use of the alphabet is strictly linear – one letter after another in a straight line. We can point to the beginning of a word or a sentence and know with absolute certainty that the end of the word or sentence will be at the end of the line of letters. This linear system influenced everything. It imposed a particular kind of order on our experience of the world.
At first, it only influenced the literate – a small, privileged minority. The invention of the printing press made books available to the masses and then their brains began to change too. The world became linear. We expressed time as a straight line – past – present – future. Music was written down in straight lines. Stories progressed in straight lines from the introduction, through the various episodes of the plot to the final denouement. We were taught to argue in straight lines, one step at a time, and if we didn’t understand we would say, “I don’t follow you.”
Enter the digital world. We learn that time isn’t necessarily a straight line at all – there is something called a time-space continuum and space certainly doesn’t exist in straight lines. Jazz is full of riffs and recursive elements. Intuition is becoming respectable again. When we read on the internet we switch and shift constantly, jumping from one hyperlink to another. Perhaps we become so enmeshed in the world wide web that we never get back to where we started at all. Movies and television stories constantly move back and forth in time and often end with frustrating question marks and ambiguous conclusions. The straight line is giving way to the web.
The arrival of the SMS has revolutionised the way we communicate with each other. Youngsters hardly ever use the telephone to actually phone anyone. They text. And although it looks as though their texts are still based on the good old alphabet, the link is starting to break down. CUL8R – is a whole new way of writing. Letters and numbers have become symbols for whole words rather than standing for a single sound. Our ‘alphabet’ is turning into logographs. Ask any eighteen year old what LOL, or ROFL means and they will have no hesitation in telling you. They no longer ‘spell it out’ because they are moving away from the linear alphabet. This is changing the way they think too, but that’s a whole other story for another time.
Among the LOLs and ROFLs we also see little round faces with stylised expressions. These emojis pepper the logographs because we still need to communicate the more subtle elements of communication – things like our feelings. The range of emojis is growing at an astounding rate and they have gone way beyond little yellow faces. Each one is a small ideograph – a picture representing a concept.
And the giph is yet another attempt to overcome the things that this new, infant script is lacking. Giphs are tiny, one-second videos that loop over and over. Frequently they show a face dynamically expressing a particular emotion. The eyebrows pop, the mouth sneers, the face breaks into an enthusiastic laugh. Now we can communicate the subtleties of body language without the use of an alphabet. That’s impossible to do with a logograph.
In this digital age we increasingly think in complex, intersecting webs rather than in straight lines. Whether we will so adapt the linear alphabet with emojis and giphs that it becomes a new form of written communication remains to be seen. This generation’s brains are wired differently from ours. One thing we can be certain of is that they will mould the world to suit themselves, and that will include all the ways we communicate. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.