The Rise and Fall of Great Communication

Will the United States still be a great power in 2040 when no one takes the time to read, write, converse, or listen?

Warning: This Post contains more than 140 characters, includes no meaningless graphics, and is dripping in sarcasm.

In his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers , Paul Kennedy argued that the greatest empires and nations in history have collapsed because they failed to maintain their economies, spent too heavily on their militaries, and succumbed to imperial overstretch.   Writing in 1987, Mr. Kennedy did not have the opportunity to assess the potential impact of PowerPoint presentations, texting, smart phones, Twitter, and “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” on the long-term well-being of our country.  (Of course, the deleterious effects of blogging also escaped his analysis).  Nonetheless, he hit the nail on the head when he predicted that the number one problem facing the U.S. in the 21st Century would be “relative decline.”

I weep for the future.

Although Mr. Kennedy was writing about the likelihood that our military obligations would outpace our economic growth, he could have been writing about our cognitive decline as well. We have steadily transformed ourselves from a nation that celebrated Lincoln-Douglas, liberal arts, and real newspapers to a country where insults and bravado have replaced propositions and evidence, no one remembers that STEM used to refer to part of a plant, and newspapers write front page stories on how presidential candidates plan their insults.  If I haven’t lost you so far, then it should be no surprise to learn that the U.S. is in relative cognitive decline.  For the past 16 years, we have been backpedaling while other countries have been racing forward on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Although our poor test results can be partly attributed to the fact that our students were upset when they learned they would not receive trophies just for taking the test, there is another cause for our post-2000 malaise, and it has nothing to do with Common Core or vouchers. We are losing our ability to communicate meaningfully, especially the ability to convey, absorb, and understand complex or nuanced thoughts. “Newspeak” is threatening to become the lingua franca of the “marketplace of ideas,” which already places a premium on simplistic answers to complex problems.

How did we start down this primrose path? Technology.  We have come full circle — from cave paintings all the way to War and Peace and the “Great Communicator” and now back to emojis.  The irony is that technology is taking us back to the Stone Age.

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft placed PowerPoint in the Office package, and we entered the era of “death by PowerPoint.”   Complete sentences and syntax surrendered to graphics and babbling bullet points: “The proposed integration and interfaces will synergistically leverage core competencies.”

From 2000 to 2007, we moved from the Crackberry to the first iPhone, making texting and mobile email commonplace.

By 2008, Americans were sending more texts than making calls on their phones. The era of rapid-fire communications.  of less than 160 characters. was. in full-swing.

That same year, Americans realized that they could rapidly communicate anything worth knowing in less than 140 characters. Thank you Twitter for ridding us of those pesky and unnecessary extra 20 characters, as well as the need for an inner voice. Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway were demonstrably wrong when they suggested that it takes time, careful thought, and diligent editing to succinctly convey complex thoughts.

Today, we don’t even need all 140 characters. In fact, we don’t even need to use actual words to communicate with others on our electronic devices.  In fact, we may now be able to say everything we need to say using emoticons or emojis.

Say it Isn’t So.”

Academia, which is the last bastion of the spoken and written word, is defying this trend, at least insofar as professors must delivery trigger warnings to protect their students from reality.  But we can see the future:  thousands of emojis that symbolize all the necessary trigger warnings required (e.g., warning:  your paper was made from a tree that may not have died from natural causes). Soon, professors will start each class with a PowerPoint slide full of emojis.

In fact, PowerPoint and emojis could be combined to enable an entirely new teaching method suitable for today’s young minds: Topic/Picture/Emoji.    Think about how easy it would be to teach modern economics:

Adam Smith

Devil Emoji.

Now you might argue that the devil emoji fails to capture the nuance and complexity of markets as well as pros and cons of specialization and international trade, but that is such a 20th Century view.  The most enlightened among us know that the world is not grey.  It is black and white.  There is good and bad.  Right and wrong.  We are not interested in other points of view, context, pros and cons, or costs and benefits.  Emojis capture this binary world perfectly, at least until one person’s emoji becomes another person’s micro-aggression (e.g., the use of a red devil emoji could be construed as a micro-aggression against communists).

But until then, Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes can be fully and fairly described by a colorless devil emoji. They are to be reviled, wiped from the history books as well as the physical landscape.  In a binary world full of emojis, there is no room for 20th Century punctuation, especially the question mark. You can no longer take, let alone debate, the position that Wilson and Rhodes were complicated men who were, in some important ways, well-ahead of their times.  We will soon hear the first call, which will be screamed from a safe space, to tear down the National Mall.  It is, after all, nothing but a series of monuments to complicated dead men whose legacies cannot withstand the withering stare of consciously uninformed certainty.

Is it any wonder that today’s students have performed so poorly on the recent PISAs? When we reduce communication to pictures and absolutist positions and refuse to engage with written content and other points of view, our cognitive capacity declines.  When I took my AP History exam in the late 1980s, the essay question asked whether President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was correct.  It was a hard question.  Complex.  Reasonable people could disagree.  It forced me to weigh the costs and benefits of using the atomic bombs against continuing the devastating aerial bombardments in preparation for a bloody invasion.  In a way, it was a question about the lesser of two evils.  Could we even ask this question today?  If we did, how many trigger warnings would be required?  Could people opt-out of answering this question if they found the subject disturbing?  If students chose to answer, would they even have the skills to do a competent job?

As we debate educational reforms, public policy, and proposals for economic growth, we cannot lose sight of the need to improve our ability to communicate meaningfully, both verbally and in writing.   I am not against technology or common sense efforts to promote community, civility, or safety on college and university campuses.  But if we do not preserve and promote a marketplace of complex and challenging ideas, we can look forward to a world where presidential candidates respond to debate questions with emojis, public policies and fundamental business questions are discussed, decided, and communicated via a series of PowerPoint presentations and Tweets, and Twitter eventually collapses because trigger warnings consume all of the available character space.

  • Nicolle R.
    January 30, 2016

    Brian – what an important article. It’s hard to know the exact right moment and way in which to begin challenging our children’s perception of complete safety and naïveté. But as a parent, doing just that seems like a rather crucial part of the job. Certainly by college one ought to be able to discuss the unpleasant as well as the repugnant – not to accept them or even tolerate them in the behavior of those with whom they choose to associate, but to assess, discuss, react and respond (or not) as appropriate. And I hope that they learn reality tv worthy responses are generally not appropriate …

    • Brian Goebel
      January 31, 2016

      Thanks, Nicolle. I could not agree more.

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