GLOSSARY / Happiness is :) in baudy language

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The Independent Online
WHEN I was a schoolboy I once conceived the notion that world drama would be vastly improved by the addition of emotional notation. After every character's name and before the dialogue you would place a small symbol 1 which would indicate how the face should be composed. Even complicated emotions ('he is laughing but at the same time is distracted by lust') could be recorded with a combination of symbols.

Contemporary writers, I thought, would seize upon this idea with unrestrained gratitude, while new editions of Shakespeare could contain the collective wisdom of a panel of distinguished academics, actors and directors. I think I was inspired to this vision by learning that Elizabethan texts on acting actually did suggest specific bodily positions for specific types of speech - a sort of dramatic semaphore for those at the back of the throng. Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand, for instance, written by John Bulwer in 1644, supplies gestures for 'I punish you', 'I will obstruct you', 'I'm ashamed', 'I affirm sincerely', 'I fear that you will be angry with me'.

Fortunately I didn't waste much time on this - but I was pleased to see recently (in our own magazine) that such symbols have now come into existence, generated by the need to add human character to the lifeless characters on a computer screen.

One of the interesting things about electronic mail is how difficult it is to have any control over how it is received. You may wing off a sprightly, teasing reference to some recent event and what you get back is a wounded notice to quit, furious at your bullying2 tone. Emoticons are designed to prevent such misunderstandings. :) means a smile, :> means a sarcastic smile and :'( means the writer is crying (if you look at them sideways you will see why). You can be rude (:P means you are sticking your tongue out) or amorous (* is a kiss and *P a French kiss - that tongue again) without the time-consuming need to type out a full description of exactly how you're feeling.

Robin Williams's Jargon, a refreshingly direct dictionary of computer terms, lumps all this sort of thing under the heading baudy language - a pun on the computer term (baud rate) for the speed at which a computer can send information to another computer. Baudy language is not just interesting because of what it tells you about human communication (half of what we say we say with our faces) but because it is more evidence for a process that is advancing every day.

The Irish writer Flann O'Brien once advanced the theory that molecular interchange is possible between inanimate objects and people. The village policeman in his story, who does all his rounds on his bicycle, first notices the effects of this after he has propped the bike outside his door and returns to find it in front of the fire. It isn't long before he discovers that when he stops in the street he has to stick out an elbow3 and lean against a nearby wall if he wants to stay upright.

Regular computer users are well beyond that stage already. In a 1991 essay on 'Computers and Language' Michael Rogers notes that when Apple hired a new president he described his initial conversations with its founder as 'core dumps', a computer term for rapid transfer of information between mainframes. The highest term of praise inside Microsoft, the world's biggest software company, is 'high bandwidth communication', a similar term which implies that the message gets through fast and without distortions.

So as well as humanising computers (computers have memory and suffer, like us, from viruses) the growing use of electronic communications is computerising humans. One proponent of Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky, even believes that it won't be very long before we can download our collective memories and knowledge into a computer system.

Meanwhile, as computer designers try to mimic the wayward processes of the human brain, the loop of metaphor tightens. Increasingly, computers are being formed in the image of their makers - who are inclined to think of themselves as computers anyway. How long, then, before you start up your computer and find it humming with religious adoration?

1 From the Greek sembolon, a mark, token or ticket.

2 Originally a term of endearment for a lover or friend (perhaps from the Dutch boel, a lover). It presumably evolved through a swaggering display to its present meaning.

3 The OED suggests a speculative Old Teutonic root alino-bogon, from alina, arm and bow, bend.