We live in a digital world, the so-called information era. We document and record and stash all the available information in digital archives, based on computer sciences. Computers are machines that do nothing more than calculation, based on human input and programming. Text is what the digital discourse is made of, and text is what it can produce, be it strings of 1’s and 0’s (binary code), digitally accessible volumes of prose or science (basically also binary code) or imagery (also an elaborate composition of 1’s and 0’s, interpreted through software to be depicted as an image—a protocol). Information takes its shape through the mechanical conduit we know as the computer: the interpreter of code.
In this virtual world (a for human beings inaccessible place inside the hardwiring of the calculating machines) nothing but text exists. These texts are mutually connected in the internet (where it becomes hypertext), the protocol that allows the textual virtual discourses of different computers to communicate with each other, allowing its human operator to communicate with other human communicators anywhere on the globe. The transmission of information between these two actors takes place through the mechanical conduit, via textual input, and doesn’t allow the implementation of subtle nuanced visual cues like body language and expressions or vocal inflection. The use of humor like irony, sarcasm and cynicism is thus hardly interpretable, which could prove a problem in effective communication and could even start serious arguments based on misinterpretation.
This problem was encountered in the childhood years of the internet, when it was still known as ARPANET, supposed to connect computers of educational institutions to share knowledge and pursue the ancient Bildungsideal, “Knowledge is power”. Professor Scott E. Fahlman, affiliated with the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon back in the early 80’s, acknowledged the problem of effective emotive communication. This was especially the case with humor, poorly recognized by Fahlman’s colleagues, I assume. Or poorly practiced. Carnegie-Mellon made extensive use of online bulletin boards where a variety of announcements was made. These were predominantly serious in nature, but there was also the occasional wit to be detected. That is, if the wit was recognized as such. Fahlman noticed that the human ‘tagging’ of the intended wit was failing. The textual discourse didn’t allow emotive cues. The solution should be to tag remarks with a marker to emphasize its emotive nature, preventing lengthy tirades born of misinterpretation of sarcasm that frustrated the original intent of the announcement. A difficulty in this was that CMC was ASCII-based in those days: not allowing the use of imagery, unless this image was composed of letters, numbers or punctuation marks. Fahlman contributed to a solution by suggesting the use of :-) that should be read sideways, as a highly simplified smiling face (possibly inspired by the famous smiley-design by Harvey Ball in 1963). For dead-serious matters the unhappy equivalent :-( was put forward. Ergo, the smiley was born, introducing the emotive icon, or, in a portmanteau, the emoticon.
Professor Fahlman couldn’t ever have remotely estimated the influence of his thumbling brainchild. Today’s information technology-based world, relying heavily on the text-based digital world the ARPANET has grown into, needs visual augmentation badly. Today’s assumption is, that if it is not on the internet, it does not exist. The shear size of it is immeasurable, it expands at enormous rates. A massive part of global communication takes place through internet bandwidth, squeezing the “now and then, here and there, real and artificial, original and manipulated”. People can lead reclusive lives but still be very active in virtual social existences. Modern applications specially designed for virtual leasure tie people to their desks, endlessly pursuing gain of knowledge, getting up to speed with the most recent lolcats (an example of a meme, I will get back to later) or just kill time and involve in social traffic with strangers in non-existent virtual spaces like Second Life or HabboHotel. These virtual environments demand digital equivalents of visual cues, eventually going back to professor Fahlman’s smiling face.
The sky seems to be the limit in modern computer science. The latest attempt at fathoming computer science and human minds concerns the emulation of emotions and the recognition of them by computers, software that knows what the user wants and gives it to him, eventually aiming at assembling a digital (or virtual) brain, mimesis of the workings of the human brain, working towards perfect artificial intelligence. So, for as far as the virtual reality hasn’t yet overtaken the empirical one, how do we extend our existence in this new world of text-based interfaces and binary code? How do we utilize our human behavior in digital environments and implement emotional cues and layers human beings practice and use in communication, consciously or not? What has professor Fahlman’s smiley face grown into and how is it manifest in the virtual world of text? What does the human brain do with these impulses and where does text move into empirical subtext?