It is altogether possible that language among our aboriginal ancestors first evolved not as a means to express their physical reality but as a means to express their dreams, not as a means to describe what they saw but as a means to express what they saw with their eyes closed. It is just as likely therefore that the development of language began with metaphor, the creative engine of Dreamtime. By definition, metaphor does more than describe; it helps us envision and make sense from the things we can not see with our eyes wide open but know are there. Metaphor doesn't describe as much as it expresses and creates.
When was the last time someone asked you to close your eyes and envision or imagine something? The sweet wisdom in that quiet request seems almost like a prayer, consigned in retrospect to a simpler time not so long ago when the challenge to envision our own worlds was still part of the social contract, still part of what it meant to be a human being among others, still part of what it meant to live the American Dream. Nowadays, however, we are drowning in a relentless torrent of one-way images and video, punctuated only on occasion with digital communications technologies designed to save time, increase scale, and eliminate metaphor.
After all, who needs language to convey what images communicate so much faster and in far greater detail? Who needs words to describe Tolkien's tortured soul Gollum now that he's been rendered in hyper-realistic HD? Nowadays, words no longer convey images; images convey words instead. The wholesale exchange of words for images impoverishes our lives and culture beyond measure as we watch our dreams recede farther and farther into the vestigial shadows of the past. Who has the time or tools or will to dream anew?
The transition from a print culture to an image-based culture exchanges the grandeur of history and perspective for the small-minded and contextually liberated tyranny of the present. Battered by sheer volume, the visions and dreams we entertain most frequently are no longer our own, delivered to us instead in an endless stream of byte-sized electrons, circumscribed, defined by and reduced to the size of the screens in front of us. The problem is far less about being censored and far more about a paucity of things worth censoring. The ancient Vedic Seers had it right: We become our attention – a real problem (as it turns out) when our attention is so commercially and thoroughly mediated.
Along with the rise of visual technologies that allow us to render our dreams (and nightmares) in graphic detail is the development and evolution of digital communications technologies that accelerate our ability to communicate but inhibit communication by methodically stripping metaphor from our language. The human imperative to communicate our hopes and dreams in a well-crafted letter – a centuries-old tradition and art form – suddenly surrendered in the 1990s to the technological imperative to save time and money when we shifted en masse from pen and paper to email. Our ability to communicate suffered as we truncated our language to suit the medium, and initiated the exchange of quality for quantity in the process. The shift from email to instant messages accelerated and truncated our language even more, produced even greater volume, and further eroded our ability to communicate as we learned how easy and convenient it was to replace metaphor with acronyms.
Now we have Twitter, an entire network where millions of people are devoted to the truncation of expression (up to 140 characters), and we learn that the majority of cell phone use is devoted to short text messages instead of conversation. On the twin alters of technology and expedience we have sacrificed our two most precious assets: our time and our language.
In Laws Of Media, published posthumously in 1988, Marshall McLuhan offered the observation that a medium begins to work in reverse when pushed to extremes. For instance, the harder we push the limits of digital media, the worse they perform. The more we measure, the more uncertain we are of which measurements are meaningful. Perhaps this explains also why so much of our time nowadays is spent deciding who we don't want to talk to, and why we now deploy so much of our digital communications technology to effectively shut down communications.
We are highly motivated and well-equipped to avoid risk. Indeed, we need only react. We need only not to rock the boat, so we are happy to put our own agendas – dutifully and without fail – behind the agendas of everyone else who just happens to be in our email inbox when we check it.
What once held such promise as a medium of intimacy now compels us to defend ourselves, our children and their children against tsunamis of meaningless trivia. We are living Huxley's nightmare, not Orwell's. Major institutions (like corporations, government agencies, and large NGOs) are the true beneficiaries of digital technologies and scale. The same companies and institutions – those with unimaginable amounts and varieties of data to manage – are now all but hermetically sealed off from the outside world, and far less accountable than ever before. Just try contacting a human being by phone at any major online social network. It's frustrating enough to make Gandhi want to punch an ad executive.
We need to close our eyes and envision things we cannot see because we cannot dream with our eyes open. It's important to close our eyes and imagine new worlds because the act alone compels us to express our grandest dreams. It's critical to close our eyes because we simply cannot hope to express ourselves with them open.
Meanwhile, we must stop subsidizing the destruction of metaphor, the natural habitat of our dreams. We need to slow down. We need to preserve the media ecology. When the patient says, "Doc, it hurts when I do that," and the doctor says, "Don't do that," we need to listen.
About Jeff Einstein and the Brothers Einstein
Jeff Einstein is one-half of the Brothers Einstein, a creative strategy and branding boutique. The Brothers Einstein help select rapid-growth clients protect their media investments with superior creative and brand strategies.