What Happened to UpTalk? DeviceTalk?

Did something replace UpTalk?. Uptalk was a curiosity in oral speech where the speaker delivers a statement, but gives the end of the sentence an upward pitch typical of a question. Those who study language have traced it to a variety of languages, back through time. It came into notice in North America with California Valley Girl speak.

As a social phenomenon, Uptalk suggests the speaker is asking for confirmation from the listener, though the reason is more resonant, for people in media were using Uptalk when delivering authoritative speech. Uptalk was more than a simple check on understanding or agreement, it became a habit of speech, and an attitude. For those studying it, Uptalk in English, perhaps even in its more historic iterations, suggested a lack of confidence in the speakers, a deference, a softening of a statement that embodied some internal worry of the speaker that the listener accept, not just an idea, but accept the speaker as a person of value. Perhaps it was an early form of what became in social media the use of the Like button: ‘do you like me?’ I’m clicking this Like button because I want you to like me.

Uptalk doesn’t seem so widespread now, at least here, as it was in the 80s and 90s. What’s interesting about UpTalk is that the speakers didn’t realize they were using UpTalk. It seemed normal to them. They had picked it up, but then in picking it up, it became part of their face to the world, communicated something about them, about how they were in the world. Who knows: is it possible that the affect is flipped, not that people lacking confidence generated this use of speech form, but adopting the form from common use, the use of the speech came to shape their behaviour?

I was walking about our local park last night, a cool summer evening when a lot of people were out to catch the last bit of light. Little groups were clustered together finishing off an activity with some social time. Four young adults were sitting near the ball diamond, baseball gloves beside them on their seats. Another young couple was walking their dog. Myself, just drifting about, clearing my head, caught some of the conversations. The twenty-somethings at the ball diamond were conversing about compliance responses to vaccination.An important topic of discussion.

As I passed a couple on the way home, a parked car between us for Covid distancing, they were talking together quite animatedly and loudly, exactly like those the park. Much as one might with UpTalk, I heard the speech sound, the way they talked, rather than hearing the ideas and it struck me as a peculiar form of speech, much like UpTalk was.

Perhaps this will become a scholars research, likely it is already. .What I heard as a general discourse, in-person conversation, sounded to me a lot like social media was talking. Where UpTalk spread through media, is it possible we have a new social discourse also the product of our media, new media in this case. As it was young people, just finding their way in the world, without entrenched ways, picked up the UpTalk, conceivably young people today have picked up from media their peculiar discourse, and like UpTalk was to its users, is unrecognized as being different or peculiar to them.

I’m sure the speakers in the park and on the sidewalk aren’t aware of their intonations and inflections, the delivery of their words. And I don’t think they’d believe it was shaping their behaviours. The influence of social media, of course, is a concern. Well, I think any observations about the on-line shaping of behaviour has spilled out to the off-line, the online discourse transposing into how people relate to each other in person.

I heard a lot of enthusiastic talk in the park next to the ball diamond. It built over time. It started with a strong opinion. Another person confirmed agreement by contributing their strong opinion. And another the same. As they established common agreement, they became more animated and the comments became more extreme. The energy grew. The escalating shared opinions took on a colour; as they went along, they relinquished talking about the idea and focused on the demographic who didn’t share their opinion, in this case the vaccine hesitaters or refusers. The start was how the non-vacinators’ behaviour was unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. Then came the obvious, how stupid they were, not in that word exactly, but that idea. The young adults used vocabulary suggesting a good if not expert education, words such as ‘social determinants.’ These would appear in their stream of opinion. As they went along, I sensed each of them enjoying the exchange, the intensity of speech increasing, the enthusiasm of speech mounting up. I feel I can say what they were enjoying was how good they felt about themselves, hearing the affirmation of the others, seemingly cheering each other on as each’s opinion was echoed by the others, a boost, a shot of pride in how I am right. I sensed their developing conversation becoming an enthusiastic linguistic “high-five.”

What I didn’t hear, and one doesn’t find this in the social media comments either, was any reflective consideration. There was no allowing for why others felt differently, why they might think or act as they are. There was no weighing of both sides, theirs and the others.

Now, what’s different in the park compared with online dialogue is the other, the vaccine avoider .wasn’t in the park where they could be on line, in the comment feed, their opinion in print waiting for a followup comment, responses conveniently indented. None of the online responses seem to say, you might be right. Don’t ask the other, what about this? Don’t inquire for the other’s reasoning. Responses don’t say that’s a good point. They don’t say I hadn’t thought of that. And my park conversationalists weren’t say anything like that either. They weren’t exploring a question. They gave no consideration to the legitimacy of their opinions, no testing, no humble doubting.

That can be attributed to human nature, to the moment, the particular occasion of having played a ball game together, and now were cheering each other on in social discourse, grabbing that feeling good about being a winner. I’d allow that but I am starting to feel this talk is who they are, how they are, is the way they are in the world, live in the world everyday.

I doubt if they’d think of it that way. It’s just normal for them. But for me, I see them as shaped by the online world they spend so much time in.

Their lives outside may be shaped by their digital communication. The device itself. From the physical size of the device, its sensuous glossy surface, the colours of the buttons and lines boxing in content, yes the content itself, the devices own appearance dictated by persuasive techniques and sophisticated readings by AI of the users click history. The form of the device has determined the behaviour and attitude of the user: the user activity, attitude, expectation, a stamp, a copy of the way social media presents. How they present in their lives, a stamp of the influence of social media.

I hear a common form of talk of younger adults, even in interviews where there comments about something are predominantly prefaced by I really like this, I would want that, I would want it….That’s the world online talking, the like button, the give us your feedback request, add your comment opportunity which are there because they increase time spend online, but being there they shape a way of talking, of seeing oneself in the world, how one talks to the world.

Human beings have always emulated people they admire, respect, look up too. Outstanding people have been a model for others over history. Now, it is -not as we think the influencers and celebrities so much – it is the social media itself that is the model of our ways. The device dictates what lives on the screen. Influencers and celebrities have figured out better than anyone how to work that device, know how the device works and shape themselves to it. And the really smart ones, the designers of social media; social media is the glove that best fits the device, and so the device itself, its physical properties, is the hand inside the glove. The nature of the device deems what appears on its screen and the device shapes the way the content appears, and so it is the device that way actually relate to, not the contents much as the device itself. As was later said about Sesame Street, it wasn’t so much that it educated the child in the content of learning as it educated the child in watching TV. Social media is only the most astute in using the form of the device for its ends, has succeeded in best understanding the device and using it to great profit; it is the device that is its teacher.

The device in its various expressions has become the model for our normal form of presentation with each other, well actually for those who have known no other, hence twenty-somethings. I was formed at another time, know how communication is different. Not the twenty-somethings. In their formation, the device is it, their world, how they are.

Here are some facts. The average user spends nearly 2 1/2 hours online each day. Pre-teens and teenagers spend 6-9 hours on their devices, more time than with school, family or in-person friends. Twenty-somethings are recent teens. Older folks don’t see the shift. Probably think I’m making something of nothing. An old guy in the park with nothing better to do than conjure up imaginary worlds. Well, maybe. I’l give you that.

I’m offering for consideration that the device in our pocket, social media as its velvet glove controlling our news feeds, monitoring our online searches, are what becomes us. But only partially for those with other experience than social media, like me, but different for the young people, those in formation for adulthood. They have only grown up living with devices. I’m suggesting all the time we’ve allowed them with the devices, how much we’ve given in to the convenience and seduction, described technology – for ordinary folk equated only with social media and not all its other wonderful applications – as our bright future, and hence, has become the young person’s model for how to be.

Yes it’s all another reality than my own, that I sense standing there in the park, as I am, how I dress, how I think, how I talk. Today I’m guessing, the young adults are learning to talk and act, not from people (how much do they spend online compared with being in person!), and learning not even from people who are online, but learning from the device itself, how to live from the great Online itself. Not people become some young people, not people they interact with, but hanging out online is their potter 6-9 hours a day as they spin on the potters wheel.

Devices condition, teach how to relate, the nature of the device itself becomes what a user observes, follows, pays attention to, learns from. The device, I’m suggesting, is a friend, companion, model.

It follows then, if we want to change the influence of social media, we really need to change our relationship to the device first, that is if we are to be successful. But then, do we need to?

What I got in the park is that how they are online is just how they are in person. They relate to each other as if relating online, in soundbites, exclamatory comments, self-justification. What do I know? I talk to young people who are thoughtful and questioning. They are not buying in. They are containing the digital device, putting it in the corner, keeping it out of their lives except as an appliance to help them out, not the friend who will take care of them, show them the way.

I feel they will figure it out. I trust them. I have spent my last 24 years with young people, 45-60 hours a semester with each class. Like my students, those were really nice young people in the park. I’m sure really good young people. I like their values, not for the pursuit of consumption. Whether a deception or not, they do value being together, it seems, more than ambition and acquisition and accumulation. They are the ones, not my lot, that are most concerned and aware of the health of the planet.

I think my one question as I listen to the way of talking, the syntax and structures, frequent use of the first person pronoun is whether or not the device detaches us from each other, from deep human engagement. Are there any commitments anymore? A big thing online is to always say you are coming to some event, be positive, but actually going is optional.

The young people in the park and on the sidewalk seemed to be talking to each other as if through a device. A device isn’t very human. It doesn’t show emotion. It displays emotional content, on the other side of the screen. Far away. We know the video has nothing to do with us. The image may be a person crying or laughing but we know not with us intentionally. We’re not experiencing their emotion directed at us. We’re just clicking on a device that answers back with rewards, lots of bobbles of feel good, lots of visual and aural stimulation. A steady intake of sugar, confirmation of our biases, preferences we have revealed through our clicking history, fee back to us in a constant stream; the little device feeding us an endless stream of ourself. It’s not human, not how humans are, not questioning, revealing, contradicting, sympathizing, holding back, letting go, holding on, as another human being staring us in the eyes, breathing our air. On the device one doesn’t encounter body language as we would with a person. Body language is 70% of human communication and is judged more trustworthy than spoken words. the device doesn’t express body language intentionally to us.

Good or bad. Who knows yet? A bit of both? Are we going to do well by it as a civil society? Who knows? It is what it is. But it isn’t.