Subtle Loss?

How does technology change the way we behave and understand?
(This is a conversation from 2000 between two graduate students in a communications class, — Jonathan and me.)


I’ve been thinking (this always gets me into trouble!) that technology and the emphasis on quick and direct communication may have contributed to what I see as a loss of subtlety in our lives. Just what is “subtle”?
subtle /ˈsədl/:
1. delicate, elusive; difficult to understand or distinguish
2. perceptive, refined; having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly
3. highly skillful; expert
4. operating insidiously
I’m looking at the second definition.

On the one hand, it can be comfortable to have everything boldly and concretely communicated, leaving no doubt in one’s mind. On the other hand, when everything is accepted at face value, there is a loss of open-endedness that is a pathway to creative solutions. Have we become better communicators or cowards?

Technology has encouraged speed, quantity, clarity and convenience and this focus has tipped the balance in our lives.

In making some of the following points, I realize the concepts could be expanded much more. These are some areas I see that have been affected by the priorities encouraged by technology:

1. Education

Discipline  — A teacher used to be able to raise an eyebrow to squelch disruptive students. Now with music videos visually displaying the words to songs and tv/video/digital games technology using graphic information as a standard element of communication, nothing is left to the imagination. The subtle gestures don’t work but the in-your-face “shut up” makes its point.

Imagination  — When I was teaching and gave an assignment dealing with questions and musings that students might have, their response was empty and confused. A large number just didn’t wonder about things or imagine what could be. If one doesn’t imagine, then so many possibilities are never even raised. Creativity is withering as we neglect to water our imaginations.

Patience  — As we’ve become used to our instant gratification society, we’ve forgotten how to be patient. Indeed, we’ve forgotten the by-products of patience, one of which is artistic fine-tuning and subtleties.

Thinking  — Critical thinking skills require elastic thinking. If one is not used to working within a subtle life context, then the thinking becomes rigid and limited.

Literature  — At one time, a reader used to look forward to the joy of exploring all the subtle nuances in the language of the plot and characters. Today’s readers (the few that exist) become impatient with subtle language and demand clarity and a no-nonsense approach that leaves no questions behind.

2. Relationships/communication

We used to use body language to suggest and now we use body language to shout the message.
E-mail. Forget about the subtle introductions. Get right to the point and make it brief or it will be deleted with a quick tap of a finger. Is this desirable or undesirable?

Loss of empathy. To develop empathy, one must jump the concrete bookends and create new metaphorical “synapses”. In this case, it is the subtle which connects.

3. The marketplace

With more and more purchasing conducted within the digital realm, we look at the obvious qualities of the product without the advantage of the subtle elements that surface while tactilely dealing with textures and their resulting sounds

Shortsightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety that requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.


Response from Jonathan:

I think your arguement suffers from over-generalization. Reading novels and textbooks about the digital age, we tend to forget that each writer is forced to “make a point” with his book, to put forward a general point of view about the situation, and most do so on too little information.
Sadly, such is the case with your well-thought-out “subtlety” arguement.

First of all, you say that the new technology emphasizes “quick and direct communication” and, later, that it “has encouraged speed, quantity, clarity and convenience”.

I have not yet been convinced that this is the case. If you are discussing a movement from telephone to e-mail, from stores to virtual stores, then I would say that the latter media encourage careful thought more than the former.

Today we write e-mail knowing that it can be archived for all time (case in point, this correspondence!) and we shop, as you say, conveniently in our own homes. Obviously, e-mail is a more careful (thus subtle) medium than the telephone. Although virtual shopping robs us of the chance to feel the object, which is a loss of subtlety, it also frees us of our annoying spouse who wants to leave.

On Education:
I am hardly an expert but… aren’t the points you raised the same that were raised 20 years ago about the rise of the “television generation”?

On Interpersonal Communication:
It is hard to believe that any new technology has made us less empathic. Perhaps you would like to blame the move to the cities, the loss of respect for our elders, etc. etc., but without any specific technology named, this is hard to believe.

By e-mail do you mean “cold calling” or e-mail between friends? I don’t think a new venue for communication changes the character of the people communicating. People do, over e-mail, all the things they did before over the telephone and by snail mail:

Chat, argue, (almost) scream, joke, emote, write formal letters, send job proposals, etc. etc…
In fact, one might say that the thought required to imbue our emotional subtext into a written message (when I send a friend an email with emotes in it) forces us to do in words what we used to do with a few grunts over the wire. Perhaps the advent of e-mail is making our culture more literary, rather than less.

The Marketplace:

I mentioned virtual shops above. As I said, they have advantages and disadvantages.

What does this mean:

“Short-sightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety which requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.” Sadly, I think I missed a part of the arguement to which that was the conclusion. If we state as given a loss of subtlety, I’m not sure which aspect of business requires your “kneading.” Short-sightedness is bad, but again, inspecific.

Look, I’m not flaming you, Bonnie.

You gave an honest opinion, and obviously took a lot of time to put it together.

I’m just calling for more careful thought, definitions, and examples of technologies and their effects.

Anyway, this was my two cents…


My response to Jonathan:


* Your two cents goes far! A good response. Yes, I was aware that I had thrown out some over-generalizations.

* Actually there’s another argument on your side that more subtlety might sometimes exist in the realm of technology. Consider the insidious use of cookies and the vast amounts of information that can be reaped from clicking habits of Internet travelers. In this sense (the 4th definition of “subtle” that I included in the original posting), “subtle” can be negative.

* I’m not sure that e-mail requires more careful thought. How many people really consider the possible archival permanence of their e-mails?

* Don’t forget that television IS part of the technology movement. There IS a difference in attitudes within the education world. I began teaching in 1967. After several career changes, I returned to teaching. There is a big difference not only in behavior but also in the ability of students to focus on any one thing for a reasonable amount of time.

Yes, television has influenced much. Look at the local TV news. Time how long they remain on a particular subject. Obviously, it’s not long enough to go into much depth at all. They have no faith in the ability of the public to go beyond the surface. Clock how long, on any show, the camera angle remains in any one position. Will the viewer lose interest if the shots remain too long the same?

And consider the drive of the male species to gain and remain in control of the remote control. The remote control allows him to run, not walk, through all the selections. Does he remain on one channel? Rarely. So, yes, the technology of television has trained us to expect quick shots.

And that includes those in the classroom. Today students in general are unable to focus in an environment requiring more than a quick shot. And parents are looking a quick fixes for this problem. Just two days ago, when I called a parent about her son who was being disruptive, she asked me if I thought he needed to be medicated.

* (What does this mean: “Short-sightedness of business ventures can result from the loss of subtlety which requires a symbolic kneading of the hidden layers.”) To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. I think it has something to do with a phone call which hijacked my thoughts.

* If you think technology has not made us less empathetic, then do you believe the opposite — that technology helps us to become more empathetic? If so, in what ways?

* I’m not sure the advent of e-mail is making us more literary. E-mails are making poor writing the norm. For example, in spite of spell-checkers (which can’t differentiate between “your” and “you’re”), conventional spelling will quickly become a thing of the past. Spelling shortcuts and errors have resulted in many people seeing the incorrect spelling of words more frequently than the correct spelling. Merely through frequency of usage, correct spelling is now going by the wayside.

* Remember that the telephone is also part of technology. Go back further to the time when letter writing or personal contact was used much more for communication. (I date back to when my family phone had a “party” connection and we had limited calls.) There is more opportunity for subtlety in letters. Besides the words and their connotations, there were also the subtle nuances in the handwriting itself. You could tell how hurried the writer was by its style, as well as how angry s/he was, etc. Add to that the stationery used. You could argue that with ever-increasing sophistication in e-mail programs that some of the same possibilities exist with the use of font style and color. But e-mail has yet to devise some way to reproduce the tactile sense.

* Emoticons. That’s just it! “Subtle intelligence”, one intelligence that Gardner of the multiple intelligences trend has not yet discovered, involves reading between the lines, understanding both the denotative and connotative implications of words, and understanding how the juxtaposition of phrases evokes certain understandings. In the E-world, why is it considered necessary to use emoticons? We never used to do it in traditional letter writing. Is it because we assume people lack the desire to delve into the subtle aspects of the message or do we lack confidence in their ability? Maybe we lack the time to do this and the emoticons merely make the message more understandable.

* Consider this analogy with driving, riding a motorcycle or bicycle and walking. The car, a technology I would not want to do without, takes us from point A to point B. What do we see in between? The world whizzing by. On a motorcycle (I sold mine) you feel the subtle temperature differences as you go through dips and crests in the road. You smell the honeysuckle and taste the bugs between your teeth. Ride a bicycle and add the element of feeling your muscles connect with your journey and hearing the concert of the cicadas. Walk and you see the tiny subtle elements, a camouflaged crab spider feasting on a bee in a yellow marigold. You can even become part of the natural cycle by offering your flesh to some ravenous mosquitoes. (Now why did I feel an urge to add an emoticon?) Is one mode of transportation better than the other? It depends on your destination and timeline. It depends on whether the destination is most important or the journey. It depends on what you want to experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I joyfully embrace technology and its promise of exciting possibilities. We just need to maintain a cultural perspective and not allow ourselves to lose perspective. I think what I’m trying to say is that we need to understand what is happening to us. We need to preserve our choices so that we don’t lose the ability to delve into the subtle layers. We must maintain a balance between the literal and figurative. By becoming solely a literal society, we risk losing our poetry.

New thoughts in 2016 on technology:

(Note: This conversation took place in the early 2000’s. Much more could be added to the argument based on technology changes that have evolved since then. For example: What do we lose in texting? What do we lose by allowing the Kindle to replace traditional books?)

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