Country's future, interrupted

A few days ago I visited a bookshop, a dusty little island of treasures owned by an aged European man. In my company were two friends, who are siblings, and, in my circle, the greatest enthusiasts of the written word.

I’ve bought a couple of books from this bookshop over the years but I have never had any verbal exchange with the owner. This time, on seeing the siblings’ literary selection, the old man decided on some constructive engagement because he was visibly impressed. Among our (six) hands, it turned out, we had some greats: Orwell, Irving, Hemingway, Pirsig, Pratchett and Frank Herbert.

The old man couldn’t contain his joy. He asked us where we come from and what we do and exclaimed, over and over, about the great literary choices we had made. Then he told us that he had been a teacher and casually offered my friends weekend jobs.

His last utterance, as we were making our way out, was: “This country’s future looks good with people like you in it.”

Back home, my 12-year-old sister didn’t notice that she’d been spelling words like ask, know and because incorrectly while we were texting each other, so I decided to reprimand her (to her surprise). I understand that cellphone and Internet technology has completely changed the way people communicate but, really, it’s unfortunate that the casualties are pronouns and auxiliary verbs.

Words like “in”, “was” “and”, “are” now appear as “n”, “ws”, “nd” and “r”. This syndrome has affected an alarming number of people born in the Eighties and Nineties. People who learned to read and write in the noughties now use Mxit and Facebook as the basic means of communication and they have no desire to construct literary masterpieces while they “chat”.

And despite my severe disappointment that the English language (and Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho) is slimming down, I cannot express my deep sadness fully because, “Un42n8tly Im lmtd 2 500wrdz”.

I try not to be affected by 21st-century cognitive fatigue, but I don’t really have a choice in this distracted environment in which I live and work. I pride myself on the fact that I was schooled during a time when getting books from the library was as normal as using tikkiboxes, and “cut and paste” involved real scissors and glue.

But be that as it may, it’s frightening that I’ve got to a point where I feel obliged to update my Facebook or Twitter status for fear of people losing interest in me. And unlike many of my peers, I’m not even an UberTweeter.
Going back to what the old bookseller said, I wonder: How does the future really look in a world of me-me-mes that are constantly seeking out a new social highs to satisfy deteriorating concentration levels?

What classics will the children of 2050 be reading when their future parents are incapable of skimming through anything longer than 140 characters?

The world’s great stories, then, will amount to nothing but low-tech interruption.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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