Texting and the Telegraph

Many New Media scholars find it productive to compare technological innovations and their impact on society throughout time as a way to ground their current research.  In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary traces the modern construction of the observer and visuality to the camera obscura, an early device used for redirecting light to project an image of its surroundings onto a screen or paper. The connection between texting and the telegraph seems more straightforward. After all, I did just sign up for another two years of service from American Telephone & Telegraph.
Evans: Could you come superintend under my direction important excavation Knossos. Personal not school affair terms four months sixty pounds and all expenses paid to begin at once.
Mackenzie: Agreed coming next boat.
– Telegrams between Arthur Evans and Duncan Mackenzie regarding work at the excavation at Knossos
The 2008 Pew Internet report on Writing, Technology and Teens came amidst concerns over the “death of writing” and the “colour and poetry” of writing being lost. The Pew study also states that students do not consider texting writing, and indeed it appears to be closer to a vernacular form of speech. In Taylor and Vincent’s 2005 An SMS History they describe this speech as “new linguistic repertoires that allow for the intimacy afforded in face-to-face encounters to be reproduced between physically remote interlocutors,” in other words, a unique texting argot.

Alternately, Caroline Habluetzel looks at texting as occupying a unique position between speech and writing, allowing it to “overcome the absence of the receiver and create what in the context of classic letter writing has been called epistolary presence, that is, a sense of presence between the two interlocutors that is more intense than geographical distance would suggest.”

This changing of our sense of place and space through time is something that I’ve always been interested in as an archaeologist.  The affordances of texting and telegrams are similar enough–limited transmission length, relatively expensive, conveyance of instantaneous information that is expected to be read and acted upon immediately–that it creates an intriguing parallel in history.  Tom Standage calls the telegraph The Victorian Internet in his book with the same title.

It appears that the telegraph has not destroyed writing, nor will texting. If anything, I appreciate the shortness of the telegram agreement quoted above between Arthur Evans and Duncan Mackenzie–how wonderful it would be if more jobs had similar hiring practices!

Linguistics and Nerd Cadence

Geek Girl Blogger
"Geek Girl Blogger" - normalized nerd performance?

I’ve always been a little curious about what I’ve informally called “nerd cadence.”  Probably best typified by the “Comic Book Guy” on the Simpsons TV show, nerd cadence is a form of ultra-precise, highly melodic speech with clipped enunciation that is performed in communities of self-identified nerds or geeks.  Like most people, I’ve encountered it off and on over the years, and it was in full force at the new Star Trek movie showing in Emeryville last week.  Finally, in a fit inspired by Final Cut crashing on me for the third time I decided to look it up.  My knowledge of linguistic anthropology is weak at best, but I was able to find a few sources in pretty short order.

First, I found out that what I had called “nerd cadence” was termed “superstandard English.”  In her article, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” (and also in earlier article, “Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls”) Mary Bucholtz calls the performance of superstandard English “central to nerdy practice… (there) is a particular emphasis on language as a resource for the production of an intelligent and nonconformist identity.”  Superstandard English draws on both ideological and linguistic motivations, “contrast(ing) linguistically with Standard English in its greater use of ‘supercorrect’ linguistic variables: lexical formality, carefully articulated phonological forms, and prescriptively standard grammar” to distinguish the speaker from the umarked colloquial standard English and non-standard English.  Bucholtz goes on to note the particular lack of current slang, and found that it was one of the “rare instances when the nerdy teenagers (she) spoke to were willing to admit to ignorance.” I wonder how much of that has changed with the growing prevalence of the internet and nerd culture.

Bucholtz frames a lot of her article in terms of the black/white racial divide at the Bay Area high school where she performed her research. This is particularly interesting to me, as I took an Urban Anthropology class with John Hartigan in…2002 (?) at the height of research on “whiteness” and have recommended The Possessive Investment in Whiteness and How the Irish Became White to several of my students who professed a perceived lack of ethnic identity. (Hartigan was great, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for making me read The Future of Us All, Sanjek’s mind-numbing ethnography of the inner workings of meetings in a New York city district.  Zoning laws.  Parking meters. Ugh.)  Anyway, nerds, Bucholtz writes, “inhabited an ambiguous racial position at Bay City High: they were the whitest group but not the prototypical representatives of whiteness.”  They were “not normal because they were too normal.” They were not “white because they were too white.”

So, anyway, I looked up some of Mary Bucholtz’s newer work and she is currently studying “The Development of Scientist Identities and the Retention of Undergraduate Women in Science Majors,” funded by the NSF. Hey, cool.

Any thoughts?