Literacy and Liberty in the emoji era

Can the Declaration of Independence be reduced to a Thomas Jefferson smiley face?

Fresno Bee, June 30, 2017

A recent Harris Poll indicates that people prefer to communicate through images rather than with words. Young people in particular seem to think GIFs and emojis are more useful than words for expressing emotions. We are entering a new chapter in the evolution of literacy.

Words seem quaint, old-fashioned, and boring. We send pictures or exchange videos instead of writing letters. Twitter is changing spelling, punctuation and attention span. People don’t read long emails. And most people would rather watch the movie than read the book.

One wonders whether the emoji generation would have the skill or patience to read something as verbose as the Declaration of Independence. It is over 1,300 words long and includes some pretty big words: unalienable, tyranny, perfidy, magnanimity and consanguinity.

Consider the following fateful phrase calling for revolution: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”


That sentence is too long for a tweet. Could such an idea be expressed in emojis? Maybe we could use a mean face followed by a thumbs-down.

Electronic communication is changing our vocabulary, our syntax – and our thinking. Our thoughts are determined by our vocabulary and by the complexity of our propositions. A limited lexicon constrains thinking. A primitive grammar only permits primitive thought.

It is true that a quick exchange of pictures can often suffice. If you like something, post a thumbs-up. If you don’t, send a frowning face. You need not explain or think further—or agonize about using just the right word. Click, post and move on.

Writing and reading are laborious and slow. So too is speaking and conversation. But we crave speed. Literate people can read faster than they can listen to something read. And online readers skim faster than those who read in print.

There is even a technological fix for the slow pace of the spoken word. College kids listen to the news and online lectures played back at fast speeds. Perhaps they dream of a conversation app that would speed up interactions with boring people. Or how about a widget for wisdom?

We seem to think that communication is simply about file transfer. Our computers provide a model. We dream of faster downloads. We imagine thinking as data processing. And picture intelligence as processing speed.


But speed is no substitute for depth. The pace of human thought is fixed by neurobiology and by deeply rooted social convention. The human mind can only absorb information at a limited rate. Conversation is a tedious dance involving layers of social interaction that are continuously rehearsed, repeated and revised.

We are not simply data processing units waiting to receive the latest file transfer. We are human beings who seek out meaning. And meaning is more than information. Thinking is more than data processing. Communication is more than a quick download.

Deep thoughts and emotions percolate slowly. A conversation is often less about the information exchanged than about the process of building relationships. Wisdom cannot be downloaded directly into our wetware. It must be earned by dwelling on things and mulling them over.

And here is where words are better than images. Words open the door to abstraction, rumination and deliberation. The time span of a sentence – or a book – allows us to reflect, connect and make meaning.

Consider this sentence—also too long for Twitter: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words provoke and inspire. They require concentration and focus. Their meaning resonates and leaves us wondering.

Pictures show us things. But they don’t tell us what those things mean. A picture may convey a passing feeling, provoking tears or laughter. But an image cannot explain the rationale for a political revolution or help us make sense of who we are and what we stand for. For that we need words and sentences, literature, poetry, and philosophy.

Moral Myopia and the Speed of Twitter

Don’t be like the president.
Take a breath and think before you act (or tweet)

Fresno Bee, June 9, 2017

We are bombarded with news. It is easy to get lost in the Twitteropolis and the vibrating pulse of our newsfeeds. But when we are pulled along by the world in this way, there is no room for thinking.

We are quick to complain and slow to understand. We speak without knowledge. Reactionary responses undermine our long-term interests, goals and happiness.

As a case in point, consider President Trump’s recent twittering. He tweeted that his own Justice Department was being too politically correct with a “watered down” version of his “travel ban.” Trump tweeted that he wants a “much tougher” ban. But these tweets seems to undermine his own court case.

This week Trump also used Twitter to antagonize the mayor of London after terror attacks there. And his tweets about Qatar threatened to destabilize alliances and operations in the Middle East.

Trump is not the only thoughtless social media operator. Petty criminals boast about their crimes on Facebook. And the rest of us post and tweet reflexively. In this fast-twitch era, cyber chest thumping has replaced thinking.

Short-sighted thoughtlessness has always been a problem. In the old days, people ranted to barroom buddies. But today our thoughtless ramblings are permanently recorded online.

A kind of myopia afflicts us. We focus on immediate problems that grab our attention. We miss out on the larger picture. Short-term tactics predominate. Larger strategies go unheeded.

Our myopia is connected to our hedonism and narcissism. Like infants throwing tantrums, we want what we want and we want it now. We crave stimulation and reinforcement. We respond to every prick and poke without restraint. We won’t accept “no” for an answer. We view every setback as a personal insult.

Intemperate reaction fans the flames of cyberspace. The myopic person sees the ensuing turmoil as a sign of success, since their tantrum puts them firmly in the center of attention. But this ignores the fact that long-term interests have been sacrificed to achieve a fleeting notoriety.

Wisdom and virtue require slower, more thoughtful responses. We also need to be willing to shrug off adversity. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We waste too much time and energy reacting to every challenge and affront.

There is wisdom in silence. It is often also wise to do nothing and simply leave things alone. This idea is central to the Chinese tradition of Taoism. The Taoists suggest that those who are busily reacting accomplish little, while non-action produces harmony.

Silent non-action is counter-cultural. But consider how our reactive culture keeps us constantly distracted. We are obsessed with activity and the need to comment on the latest news. When we do something – even small inconsequential things – we document, post and brag. But the more we post, the less anyone cares and the less any of this means.

Busy bragging is a feature of our general hedonism and narcissism. We seem to be constantly trying to convince ourselves that we exist, that what we are doing is important. But let’s be honest, most of what we do or say simply does not matter. The world is vast. History is long. Everything we accomplish will be forgotten soon after we die.

From the vantage point of eternity, the pursuit of accomplishment is a vain exercise in futility. That may seem depressing. But resigned acceptance can set us free, liberating us from the need to respond to every little thing.

If we were less reactive and more reflective, we would be more moderate and circumspect. Important things require careful attention. Justice and truth are complicated and difficult. Justice is not served by a quick tweet. Truth cannot be disclosed in 140 characters.

Or consider love. We are told that love is patient and kind. It is not boastful, proud or easily angered. Love cannot be cultivated on Snapchat, Instagram or Tinder. Those names imply a quick spark, rather than an abiding warmth.

The fury of our reactionary world undermines thinking. Deep thought is unhurried and quiet. Thinking takes time, vision and revision. The life of virtue cooks slowly. Happiness requires a slow simmer, not a quick boil. And the bread of wisdom takes a lifetime to rise.