I rode my bike down the Hoodlebug Trail in western Pennsylvania feeling like I was stuck on both sides of a time machine. The trail itself was paved over an old commuter railroad line that started in the Pennsylvania town called Indiana and ended in Blairsville. Little reminders of the old days still ran along the buried tracks. Groundhogs stood to peer across a fallow field, chipmunks scattered away from my shadow, a buck paused on the trail before racing down to a creek to drink. The ghosts of nineteenth century industry—coal mines and iron furnaces and the young growth of a clear-cut forest—floated around me. The trail also intersected little reminders that I was very much in twenty-first-century America: the wastewater treatment plant; the baseball field with a painting of the nuclear power plant below the scoreboard; the actual nuclear power plant behind the baseball field; the freeway that ran sometimes dangerously close to the trail; the iPod I had plugged into my ears, blasting the Descendents. As I crossed over Two Lick Creek, I caught a glimpse of a billboard through the trees. It showed a picture of a freeway and said, “DNT TXT N DRV.”
It took me a few minutes to figure out what the hell it meant. I kept trying to figure out what DNT stood for. Descendents Nuts Transfer? Donuts Next Town?
You, on the other hand, if you have a cell phone, if you’ve sent a text message before, if you don’t have the Descendents and donuts on the brain, probably knew right away what the sign said. You are one up on me. I was a mile down the Hoodlebug, thinking about something entirely different when suddenly Don’t Text and Drive popped into my head. Perhaps because this revelation hit me right in the middle of the song “Hateful Notebook” in the middle of the Trail That Is Twenty-First-Century America, my brain started reeling.
Earlier this past summer, I read a book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. It’s the kind of book that you only read if you’re a geek or an English professor. Since I’m both, I loved the book. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what you need to know about it is that Ong discusses the ability to write and read as a technology—which it is, though we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t see it that way—and it’s the technology that made Western Civilization what it is. Ong says that in cultures that have never been exposed to reading or writing, thought patterns are completely different. Cultural mores, laws, traditions, etc., are all memorized in the form of an epic poem. Because there’s no dictionary, people’s vocabularies are only a few thousand words. People living in oral culture are no less intelligent than people living in a literate one, but they do think differently. Writing and reading changed the way people think. For one thing, when we are able to write, we can literally take thoughts out of our heads and store them somewhere else. In other words, I don’t have to allocate any mental space to, say, avocados when I’m hungry for guacamole. Instead, I can just write a shopping list and put avocados, jalapeno peppers, garlic salt, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and beer on it. That way, I can forget about those items until I get to the store and read my list. In the meantime, my mind will be free to wonder about things like the Descendents song “Hateful Notebook.”
It’s on perhaps the most underrated Descendents album, Everything Sucks. In short, it’s a song about a girl who writes all of secrets into her notebook and the narrator of the song wants to know what’s in it. More than that, though, the narrator wants to read what’s in it. Because there’s a difference between knowing what’s in a notebook and reading what’s in a notebook. When you know what’s in a notebook, your mind assimilates the information into your thought processes, changing exactly what is written into your vague conception of what is written. When you read it, though, you know exactly what is written, exactly the thoughts that she had in the way that she wanted to express them with all the complexity, innuendo, and nuance she used. He can go back and read and read that notebook and what he knows will grow. More meaning will come out of those words. He’ll think about it as “reading between the lines,” but he’s not reading between them at all. He’s just gradually coming to a better understanding of what they say. And that’s one of the really amazing things about reading and writing: meaning grows as you continue to reread. Even the simplest diary will become more complex, more elucidating the more you read it. Words and sentences carry a lot more information than we usually give them credit for.
In a way, that works in oral cultures, too. I’m sure when those poor Athenian bastards had to memorize The Iliad, the meaning grew with every recitation. In their minds, it probably started out as a war story, morphed into a gay love story, and eventually became the law of the land. It’s not all that different from me listening to that Descendents album a hundred times and singing along to all the words until the meanings grew and grew and eventually led me to thinking way to hard about it while I rode the Hoodlebug and creating a whole scenario about this sad little goth girl and her black and white composition notebook, using a nubby pencil to write all about how 45 Grave really gets her, and the too-skinny dude with his horn-rimmed glasses and DIY buzz cut and huge internal desert of insatiable longing.
But I have time to think about these all of these ridiculous things. Why? Because I come from a literate culture that allows me to take most of my thoughts and store them on paper somewhere, or allows me to borrow or access thoughts that other people put on paper so that I could use them when I want to.
And since I had this time, I used it to wonder what the fuck DNT TXT N DRV really means? I mean beyond “don’t text and drive.” What does it really mean?
One of the things that Ong talks about is the turning point of literacy. Originally, people used writing just as a way of counting money or storing stuff. Want to know what’s in that basket over there, look at the picture of the olive on the side of it. Want to know how much money you got for those olives, count the number of vertical lines you drew on that piece of bark. From there, the circles and lines got more advanced. They started to mean more. But what really changed everything was the vowel. Before the vowel, the circles and lines couldn’t be read the same way by everyone. Where one person sees an olive, another sees and orange. Where one person sees DNT and reads it as don’t, another person reads it as donut. What separates the don’ts from the donuts? The vowel. Put a vowel in a word and anyone can learn to read fairly accurately. And once anyone can read, everyone is able to take thoughts out of their heads and store those thoughts in a way that’s accessible to a broader population. Laws, mores, and traditions don’t have to be memorized. Just write them down and look them up if you need to. Free up your mind to invent new stuff to maybe make life easier.
When you consider this, you realize that everything we have in this culture of ours—from bicycles to baseball games to train tracks to blacktop paved over train tracks to nuclear power plants to iPods to aging punk rock bands—can be traced back to one single technology: the vowel. And now we send text messages that treat the vowel like it doesn’t even matter.
But that’s not my point. This isn’t just a long rant to say that text messaging sucks. I have no idea whether or not it sucks. I don’t have a cell phone. I’ve never sent a text message. Hell, it usually takes me anywhere between a week and forever just to answer an email. There’s no way I’m going to walk around with some little machine that lets people send little vowelless messages about the minutia of their day. I’d rather ride my bike and listen to the Descendents.
At least that’s where I am right now. I’m very happy that I don’t have a cell phone, just like there was a time when I was very happy that I didn’t have an email account. And it’s not because I’m a Luddite. I love a lot of new technology. I was listening to an iPod while I Hoodlebugged. Sure, the music doesn’t sound as good as it does when I play it on vinyl, but it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than riding a bike with a record player on the handlebars. The bike I was riding was pretty state-of-the-art, too. I don’t know what kind of metal it was made of, but it’s a lot stronger and lighter than the steel that they used to smelt in those huge old furnaces that still dot the western Pennsylvania landscape. Even when I type this, I’m using a laptop and Microsoft Word. I may not be a fan of Microsoft and Word may have its own problems, (what with all the changes it makes to words while you’re typing them; you can hardly even type “teh” anymore without the program changing it to “the.” You can hardly type Hoodlebug without a red squiggly line underneath, even though I know it’s a real word and I’m spelling it correctly). Word freaks me out sometimes, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than the old Smith Corona word processor that I wrote my first novel on. It definitely beats the shit out of the electronic typewriter I used to write essays in high school.
But because I’m of that generation that grew up from typewriter to word processor to Word, I’m even more aware of how this technology changes our way of thinking. When I used to write on a typewriter or use a pencil (like my imaginary Hateful Notebook girl), I really thought about what I wanted to say before writing it down. I mean, I really thought about it. I didn’t want to have to type out a whole new page just to fix a sentence. I didn’t want a page full of crossed out or erased words. The word processor changed that a bit, but it wasn’t until computers got cheap enough for me to be able to afford one and I started to use Word that my method of writing really changed. Now, I write as a think. I type sixty words a minute. I keep about forty of them. I use the backspace key more than I use the letter “e.” And there’s a fuckload of “e’s” in this column.
Getting back to the Hoodlebug and the DNT TXT N DRV billboard (a phrase which, not so incidentally, does not get a squiggly line under it when you type it in Word), it was at that moment that I realized just how significant all these little insignificant things like cell phones and iPods and laptops are. When the railroad tracks are paved over to make a bike path or when the clear-cut forests grow back everywhere but where the nuclear power plant is, those are just changes to the way we get around or the way we get energy. When groundhogs gaze across fallow fields, it’s just a different thing for me, a guy who lives in California, to look at. Their part of the change that is all around us and perpetual and part of the normal human experience. The actual things, like my bike and the power plant, may be unique to our time period, but they’re just part of the chain of creation and destruction that have surrounded western civilization for a few thousand years. But that little computer chip that was sitting on my hip, mainlining punk rock tunes into my ears, or the computer chip that connects careless drivers passing out essentially meaningless and vowelless messages to one another, and that chip in the laptop that helps me to write this all represent something much larger than a change in our environment. They represent a change in the way our minds are working. It’s a change in the way that we think, a change bigger than anything humans have undergone since they first came up with the vowel. And, goddamn, none of us knows where this is going to take us.
Author’s note: This is the twelfth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #41. For more information about the collection, read this post.