At the TED "Worldwide Talent Search" evening last week at Joe's Pub in New York, there were provocative, inspiring, funny, curious, speakers--they ran the gamut. As always happens for me at a TED event, I get caught up in my enthusiasm for whatever a speaker has to say and then, upon reflection I am able to be more nuanced in my judgment. Many TED speakers are fabulous, over the top, mindblowing. A number don't get even close and a few--a very few--are a bomb. That happens in show biz and one way or another, TED is definitely show biz.
Last week's Talent Search evening included John McWhorter, who teaches at Columbia University. The program notes for the evening say McWhorter is a linguist and political commentator who has written extensively on language and race relations. His TED talk for the evening focused on texting and its impact on the English language. To those who wring their hands over what they perceive as the dumbing down of our language in "C U later" kinds of comment, McWhorter's message is "not to worry." He says the brevity and in-the-moment quality of text messages are a good thing. Texting is allowing us to get and sent communication with amazing speed which gives us the gift of what he calls "written conversation." Texting produces something other than writing in the traditional sense, says McWhorten. It is "fingered speech."
As you can imagine he got my attention when he talked of "written conversation." That sounded like a good thing to me, a believer that conversation of any kind is better than no communication at all. But something nagged at me as I pondered his message later. I'm a texter myself; we all are, or at least just about everyone I know. But written conversation? If we agree texting is indeed written conversation, do we like the result?
Sunday's New York Times included a thrilling review of the show currently at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. The article includes a stunning picture of Churchill resplendent in his military uniform, taken around 1895, which makes him 21 years old, and another official portrait of stateman Churchill in 1941, complete with watch chain, pocket square, bowtie and scowling demeanor.. He was then 67.
And as we know, there were lots of words spoken by this military man turned stateman along the way between--even before and after--those two portraits. The show at the Morgan is entitled "Churchill: The Power of Words" and includes recordings played in a semi-enclosed theatre, of Churchill's voice speaking to Parliament, as well as British and American audiences by radio. I'm frustrated that the Morgan is closed today, else you know where I would be on my lunch hour. It will have to wait until tomorrow.
Until then, I'm thinking of Churchill and the power to which he put his facility with the English language in his speeches and in the written word. We know that he had a major impact on world history. And that impact came from the words he used to explain, to exhort, to inspire, to coerce his listeners--from Parliament to the man on the street- into action. Action that required literally blood, sweat and tears.
No, whatever else texting is, it does not put words to use as well as considered speech and writing. And I fear that those who use texting as their main source of communication will not only miss the thrill of well-spoken communication, they will also not cultivate the appreciation for it in others. Indeed over time, they may not be able to understand it.
More's the pity. As for me, I'm off to the Morgan. I'd much rather hear and see what Churchill has to say than spend my time reading and writing the kind of text messages that fill too much of my day. How about you?