Toy, Tool, Environment
Starting with Europe , one of the most recent communications technologies down the pipe is cell-phone based SMS (Short Message Service) messages—also known as “text messaging” (or “txt”). At this writing it is just beginning to become ubiquitous in the United States, with many people sending and receiving a text message of 160 characters or less as often as once a day, while our junior-high aged youth routinely process a breathtaking 2,272 messages monthly (2008). For those just catching on, new technologies can be “fun.” Unwittingly, we may view new technologies in one of three stages of adaptation.
Technologies begin as toys. The “play-with-it” oriented showroom floor of technology retailer Best Buy confirms it—new technological innovations are curiosities and entertainment. Our first time “txting” another individual, we wanted to “try it.” “I don’t who I txt or what I say, I just want to ‘try it’,” we say. Users focus on the experience of using the technology, and use language appropriate to the novelty, referring directly to the technology rather than the content or recipients of the message (“Look ma, I’m texting!”).
They continue as tools. This intermediary stage discovers the toy to be useful, and once the entertainment value has worn, enjoys the new efficiencies or tasks that the technology can effect. Marketing messages claim to save us time. In this, the language typically retains the presence of the technological phenomenon, but adds self-referential task-based language, e.g., “I did my e-mail this morning” or “I used the new txt feature from my bank to check my account balance.” Not everyone in the tool stage sees the technology in a positive light. Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 critique of the telegraph indicates that he has left the honeymoon of the toy stage, and, now firmly utility-oriented, is unsure the relationship should continue:
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. ~ Henry David Thoreau
Technologies finally melt into an environment. This third stage removes the technology from explicit discussion and makes it implicit or even invisible. Terminology focuses more exclusively on meaning and meaning makers. “She said she’ll be five minutes late,” says a junior-high student, who doesn’t think to explain that that message updating her friend’s status arrived via txt message. Academics speak of relating with other thinkers in their field, “I’ve been interacting with Smith lately,” and don’t find it necessary to state that they have been using a printed book technology to read Smith’s thoughts, or a computer to compose a measured response destined for a print journal.
For many this last stage—at least as it relates to portions of digital media—will remain foreign. The liminal nature of the current acceleration in technology leads to all sorts of levels of acceptance, and some, frozen in their familiarities, will never see certain technologies recede into their environment, either begrudgingly using them as a tool (think grandma with the microwave) or rejecting them outright as a toy for others. This is where digital native and digital immigrant language begins. Digital natives are those who operate environmentally with digital communication.