David Bouchier: Pandora's Tweet

Feb 27, 2017

Communication between human beings is a delicate business. It depends on words – slippery things that can change meaning almost from day to day and person to person.

That’s why some of us old-fashioned communicators, who grew up with manual typewriters and postage stamps, are suspicious of the so-called communications revolution. There’s no doubt that more communications are taking place, billions of them. So many thoughts, feeling and opinions are being exchanged that we should be entering a golden age of mutual understanding. But it doesn’t seem to be working out like that.

The social media have, in effect, taken the lid off the id – that deep down volcano of impulsive, infantile emotions that, as Sigmund Freud suggested, lurks under the veneer of civilization. If Freud was right, and you only have to spend five minutes with small children to confirm that he was, you have to face the fact that what stands between us and barbarism is maturity, self-control, and simple politeness. Electronic devices that allow anyone to communicate anything to everyone, no matter how spiteful or false it is, make politeness or even rational thought irrelevant. The nastiness all comes pouring out, a tidal wave of instant gratification from the darkest corners of the mind.

The Tweet in particular, because it is so short and easy, gives an amplified voice to anyone with a  grudge against the world and a set of opposable thumbs. We can almost hear the roar of pent up hatreds and resentments. The foolish limitation of this medium to 140 characters also means that nothing intelligent can ever be said: no development of an argument, no evidence, no contrasting viewpoints – just rhetoric, insults, and wisecracks.

President Jefferson, reduced to Tweeting, might have started the Declaration of Independence like this:

"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…"

Well, that’s it. 140 characters. We’ll fill in the details later. So much for the evolution of the human mind. Words matter, they really do. Even Mark Zuckerberg, when he wanted to write something serious about Facebook, had to use six thousand words or about thirty-two thousand characters, or close to three hundred tweets.

This inevitably brings to mind the cautionary tale of Pandora and her box. Ms. Pandora was the ancient Greek forerunner of the Biblical Eve, the first women on earth, and she was destined to bring about the ruin of mankind. She arrived with a box that she was forbidden to open. But, of course, she opened it and all the evils of the world flew out, and could never be put back in the box again.

The moral of Pandora’s Box is to beware of letting loose things that we can’t control. The twentieth century was a great age for opening boxes without ever considering the consequences. We tried world war (twice), genocide, a technological revolution, nuclear weapons, a sexual revolution, a population explosion, suburbs, strip malls, junk food, junk TV, junk education, and now junk language. They’re all out of the box, and there’s no way to put them back in.

Sad.

Copyright: David Bouchier