Have we begun to think like our media?

Once upon a time, there was no social media.  There was no traditional media.  There wasn’t even writing (yes, we are going way back).

Information relied on stories, particularly stories with well-defined heroes and villains whose actions are followed through elaborate stories of their deeds, as events were far more memorable than simple lists of facts.  Anthropologists believed that information was passed down by song, a natural mnemonic that helped countless village elders remember these elaborate stories.

William Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter not only for the purpose of becoming the most butt-kicking bard in history, but also because rhyme and rhythm are both elements that makes memorizing lines simpler, particularly when his contemporary actors may not all have been literate.

I memorized the Chinese nine-nine multiplication table as a child, which utilizes a rhythm mnemonic to aid memorization.  To this day when I see numbers my head silently recites the table.  It had become part of how I think.

Then there were books.  The invention of the printing press made words exceedingly cheap to replicate, affording writers the latitude to compose truly artful prose.  The mechanics and skills of writing were perfected over centuries and became the crux of how we communicate knowledge.  At least until recently.

When Microsoft first published PowerPoint, it was designed to be a supplement to presentations, a tool to replace plastic transparencies and slide reels.  (They look like this, for those too young to remember).  However, at some point it became the de facto format of making presentations, so much so that one of the most common advice one receives for public speaking is “don’t read off the PowerPoint.”  But if you’re anything like me, even today the process of creating a presentation begins with creation of a slide deck – by MS PPT or otherwise.

We had begun to think in slides and bullet points.

With increasing popularity of Twitter and Facebook status, while formerly popular news items are parsed through the frequency by which you hear them on TV, text bites – like on-screen sound bites – as brief as 140 characters began to pack incredible brevity, organization (#Hashtag), and impact.

If you’re anything like me, then when you stare into Twitter’s query box, “What’s Happening,” you began to organize your life into condensed bites of hashtags and shortened URLs.  Sometimes they are not grammatically correct.  Sometimes incomplete sentences.

The vast flow of minute-to-minute information has saturated our tolerance for wasted words that serve only to maintain syntactical integrity but add no meaning.

In effect, we had began to think in 140 character hash-laden non-sentences.

But don’t forget the advent of electronic books that came with the power of self-publishing that can now liberate beautifully crafted prose without the tyranny of monolithic publishers.  The popularization of web logs (i.e. blogs – the extra two letters and a space were just too much that our generation would prefer neologism over redundancy) makes possible the voice of the individual to have the reach of a major newspaper.

Rather than believing that the world has given up on poetry, prose, speeches, or even journalism in favor of  marginally coherent text bites, perhaps the increasing brevity of our communication media is an adaptive mechanism and not a symptom of disease.   The terse bursts of information we consume today is the expected result of chronic information overload both in volume and accessibility.   As the organization of our thoughts evolves with the media available directly from our pockets, new forms of communication act in conjunction, not in place of, those that came before it.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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