Watching my friend Spangler the other night over drinks at the Pegu Club as something occurred to me. We were talking about stuff and all the while he was checking his new iPhone at casual, periodic intervals. While we were sitting there talking, I could tell he was carrying on at least two other conversations via text. It didn't interrupt our flow of conversation at all, and it didn't strike either of us as particularly rude or inappropriate. In my pocket my own phone was vibrating every few minutes, telling me I had a text or two myself. I knew at least one of them was a text from somebody with an address to a place Spangler and I would be hitting later that night. As we talked, I reached into my pocket and tapped the button on the side of the phone-- it wasn't important to read the address yet, or even to reply to it. It could wait. Looking around the room, I noticed there were various people texting, checking their iPhones or Blackberry screens, looking busy or actually being busy. Some of them were streaming video or watching some moving images of some kind. With the possible exception of the bartenders, and even of that I'm not sure, everyone in the room was wired, floating between worlds, half there and half someplace else.
"Texting" is a new word. A handful of years ago no one "texted", the act didn't exist even if the concept did. People didn't text until they had celphones, and celphones with keypads at that. For most of my life, walls and applicances were "wired" but people weren't (and now they aren't either, they're "wireless"). The only wired person was Frankenstein's monster, and he wasn't even real.
Certainly, one of the best possible forms of human activity is the invention of new words-- creating names to contain new ideas. Words are thought-objects, they frame ideas and give them intellectual girth, they define the boundaries of the conceptual forms we hold in the mind. They provide the framework through which we perceive --and grasp-- reality and consider the possible (this is why it's always seemed to me a compliment when somebody says "you have your head in the clouds"). Since the advent of the computer--and our resultant, gradual, sloppy, ongoing process of morphing into machine-men, the need for building new thought-objects is more crucial than ever. Thanks to our thinking machines, the conceptual edges of what is real and what is possible are constantly blurring. Yet it seems to me there are far more people truncating existing words than there are people inventing new ones.
It's entirely possible Webster's English has become an outmoded technology. Maybe it's become a highly specialized tool required only of communications technicians and educators. Maybe it is grammar's diminishing fate to vanish with the generations of people who actually made a practice of sending handwritten letters to one another. I don't know.
I can't even remember the last time I wrote someone an actual letter on a piece of paper, stuck a stamp on it and placed it in a mailbox. I used to do it all the time. Now the only time I ever write using a pen and paper is when I am scripting something or taking notes toward a script. And the only time I ever write something legibly using pen and paper is when I am lettering a page of comics. It's the only time I ever need to.
Is there a word for that unsettling experience of walking by some street corner you've walked by a thousand times before and noticing the building that was always there had been torn down, replaced by some shiny new thing--and now that the old thing is gone, you realize you can't really remember what was there before? I feel like that's happening around us all the time.