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The Medium Is the (Text) Message

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When Sonia Maasik and I brought out the first edition of Signs of Life in the USA in 1994, we explained our semiotic approach to popular culture in part by a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s famous proclamation in The Gutenberg Galaxy that the era of print technology was yielding to an aural/visual culture, thanks to the advent of the new electronic media (which at time included radio, cinema, television, recorded music, and film). In the light of that shift, we proposed that semiotics could provide a means for writing instructors to build a bridge between the “textually based enterprise of writing instruction” and a “video-driven world.” As we work on the seventh edition of Signs of Life, it is apparent that our proposal was an influential one. From the many composition readers devoted to popular culture to the many others that make use of the analysis of images in their pages (indeed a recent Bits post discusses how Ways of Reading makes use of images), it is clear that bridging the gap between text and image has become a mainstay of contemporary composition instruction. But what I'd like to note is this: something is going on right now in popular culture, which, while not wholly taking the place of the images and sounds of the post-Gutenberg world, is certainly offering a new range of experiences whose effects are yet to be fully understood. This new cultural intervention, of course, is the advent of the digital technologies that make possible both text messaging, which is image free, and social networking. (It is significant in this regard that the image-saturated pages of MySpace have been widely abandoned in recent years as the balance has tipped strongly toward Facebook).  Thus today, rather than speaking on their phones or viewing images, enormous numbers of people are staring avidly at digital text messages, sending verbal messages in a new kind of shorthand that is different from the linear and logical structure of the old print technologies of the Gutenberg era. It is especially striking that many people who only recently were avid talkers on their cell phones now prefer the text messaging feature of their phones. Of course, sometimes this is due to circumstances in which it is better to be silent (all too often in classrooms, for example), but people will now avidly text message when silence and privacy are not concerns, and even while driving their cars—a practice more dangerous than talking on a phone while driving. More striking is the practice of text messaging when in the company of others. One of the most singular sights of our times is a group of young people congregated together while staring silently at their digital devices rather than interacting with one another. Perhaps this is simply a new mode of social interaction, but, if so, it is certainly redefining what social interaction means. In short, a post-post-Gutenberg era appears to be emerging.  There are many interpreters of the significance of this cultural shift and I, too, will be turning to it now and again on this blog and in the next edition of Signs of Life in the USA, but for now I will simply note that it is a rich source not only for class discussion but for trying to teach your students how to think critically about their own activities. Ask your students (or yourself), what is the appeal of text messaging and social networking? Why text message when you can talk? And, most importantly for writing instructors, how do the shorthand practices of text messaging relate to the conventions of expository writing? Will they complicate writing instruction or complement it?
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.