Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Dangers of the rush to abbreviate

If we're not careful, our obsession with making all things small could obliterate our capacity for complex thought - and even our cultural past

By Peter Conrad  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

My question is this: If the universe is expanding, then how come the world is getting smaller? Time has speeded up and we hustle along in the fast lane, frenetically multi-tasking. But that accelerated time gobbles up space. Life passes in a blur, we make life-altering decisions, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in his recent book on instinctive thinking, in a blink. Having been aerodynamicized, we travel light. Although McDonald's offers to supersize its bloated customers, most of us prefer to be microsized.

To me, the most wistful evidence of shrinkage is the way the ego has lost its capital letter: Teenagers, accustomed to typing phone messages with their thumbs, now often write the personal pronoun as "i," not "I." We disemvowel language in terse txt msgs to our m8s, using punctuation marks and parentheses to semaphore our moods. We live in a culture suicidally intent on abbreviation.

Once upon a time, our planet looked immense. When Adam and Eve leave Eden in Paradise Lost, they confront a world that is "all before them." Its scope is panoramic, because it consists of things that have not yet happened. A few brief centuries later, the world is all behind us. Every possible experience has passed through our system and we can only look forward to repetition or, at best, to a bizarre recombination, like the dyspeptic garbling of fusion cuisine or the randomly shuffled tracks on an MP3 player.

We think of this weariness as postmodern, but it has infected humanity for more than a century. In Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, a breezily confident western rancher offers the remorseful heroine a happy ending, and tells her: "The world's very large." She refuses his offer of the open range and replies: "The world's very small," and chooses to go on living inside her solitary head.

Nietzsche saw this subjective geography as a terminal symptom for our species: "The Earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His race is as inextinguishable as the flea."

Well, we are all last men now, and the gadgetry which so obsesses us -- laptops to which we confide our sexual secrets whenever we peep into contraband sites, digital cameras that compress our emotional archives into a stamp album of snaps, Palm Pilots that fit into an open hand and contain the network of contacts and appointments that our livelihoods depend on -- is a flea circus of tricksy, treacherous electronic microbes.

These shiny midgets have made our world so small that it may soon vanish altogether. Technology is an extension of magic, which calls on occult forces -- spirits in the old days, circuits and microchips today -- and begs them to obliterate reality.

In The Tempest, Prospero makes "the great globe itself" dissolve by waving his wand. Cybernetics has industrialized such conjuring feats and the reassuringly solid fabric of the past is disappearing into what Prospero calls "air, thin air," or into some virtual limbo where it waits to be downloaded.

Who needs books, now that Microsoft has concluded a deal with the British Library to digitize 25 million pages of its holdings? Who needs shelves of compact discs, now that 15,000 musical tracks can be piped through cables?

"It's impossibly tiny," boasted an Apple mogul when unveiling the iPod nano recently. Give the geeks a decade or so and they will have junked the hardware and started to sell us implants: an MP3 that fits in the ear like a hearing aid, a camera inserted into the cornea, a MacMini -- Apple's new, scaled-down, white computer -- to be kept where our messily organic ancestors had a cerebral cortex.

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