Somewhere over the rainbow, people are still reading books and writing letters. But as I look into America's crystal ball, I see a post-literate society where the key to success and wealth is mastering . . . emojis.
In just one generation, former students of Shakespeare and Dickens have dumbed down sufficiently to employ symbols alone when trying to communicate complex ideas and feelings. I mean, how rich in nuance and sophistication is a smiley face? When words are required, they morph into texts in which grammar, spelling and tense are irrelevant.
This a-literate culture has been creeping up on us over the past few years, and today we have schoolchildren who cannot construct a decent sentence. Some of their parents can’t, either. The literacy muscle is atrophying at an alarming pace. Rapid-fire communication is replacing thoughtful prose and precise vocabulary.
Part of the reason is that we Americans put such a premium on speed. My grandkids didn’t believe me when I told them that in the pioneer days, it could take months for a letter to get from one state to another. And how crazy that the letter itself might take hours to write by hand, in practiced script. When you sit down with pen and paper, thinking becomes the third element. You think, and then you write, and then you send. Today we don’t much need the thinking part. We text and then it’s gone, out into the world, misspellings and all.
Proof of our post-literacy is the election of Donald Trump. Here is a man who does not read books, no less security briefings, and favors 144-character tweets instead of well-developed statements. Tens of millions of Americans apparently have no problem with the obvious fact that Trump has difficulty with the English language.
His speech and writing are unpolished and full of grammatical errors. He doesn’t even read over the pre-dawn tweets he sends out into the world. Often they have misspellings that even he would catch with a reread. That is, if he had the patience, or the attention span.
I can imagine a time when we will be reading all-emoji books (on our tablets, of course). Using words takes some effort, and parents need to talk to their kids in order for those kids to develop literacy skills. Look around at parents in a park or playground. So many are on their phones while the kids are in the sandbox. (So sad.) Or Dad is pushing Junior on the swing and texting with his other hand.
These kids need eye-to-eye contact and constant conversation with the adults in their lives. Parents have to read to their kids, even their older kids, and encourage actual writing, with pencils and pens and paper. We either embrace words and share them with the people around us, or we devolve into a very different society.
Just yesterday I was walking around my neighborhood on the South Shore and mentally searching for the words to describe the blossoming cherry trees. There isn’t an emoji that can capture the color and texture and delicacy of the flower. There isn’t an emoji for many life experiences, although there are more and more of the mindless icons.
In fact, according to emojipedia, there are 69 new emojis about to grace the internet in 2017. In a pitch for diversity, there is a bearded man and a woman wearing a hijab. There is an emoji for a breastfeeding woman, although I cannot imagine in what circumstances one might employ such an image. There are new emojis for an exploding head, a face vomiting, a face with a monocle, male and female fairies, a vampire (both light- and dark-skinned), several varieties of mermaids and elves, as well as various zombies, people climbing, people in steamy rooms, people in the lotus position. There are emojis of different cuts of meat, a coconut, pretzels, broccoli and all kinds of faces, from a face with tears to a face blowing a kiss.
Clearly, the big push is for more PC emojis, since most of the new “people” emojis feature four or five skin tones.
I’m not feeling good about this slide into emoji-land. We evolved from prehistoric cave drawings into a global culture that valued literacy. There has always been an assumption of intellectual and social progress and advance; now we have proof that the assumption is flawed.
We are reading and writing less, and texting and punctuating with visual icons that are silly at best and moronic at worst.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I know that the effort to turn the tide back toward literacy begins with parents and teachers. It isn’t complicated, but it is difficult when every societal cue is telling us to take shortcuts.
The magnolia blossom on the tree limb outside flashes pink and white as it taps the window, revealing a fluttery white underside. No emoji for that.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.