Word Virus

2017: The Year of …

2017 was a whirlwind year. There was scarcely a moment’s pause to be savored from one terrible news story to another — from hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, to the Grenfell Tower fire, to the daily cascading indignities of Donald Trump’s America.

Consumer culture, too, appeared to be operating at hyper-speed, as PR disasters in quick succession shook up companies like Pepsi, United, and American Airlines. The media, already churning out stories quicker than ever, zoomed by at an unprecedentedly frantic pace.

Online, the year’s most common responses to this rapid-fire chaos manifested in “Hold my beer” tweets and “Distracted Boyfriend” memes, each in its own way speaking to the ostensibly instantaneous escalation of events piling one atop another.

But another syntactical trend emerged that I think indicates a more appropriate reaction to the raging tire fire that was 2017: the ellipsis. Those three little dots, which ordinarily signify a textual omission, have assumed broader significance and deeper cultural meaning in a year when we could barely seem to catch our breath.

By late-2017, ellipses were… everywhere. And not just in the usual, pedestrian places; more than simply denoting a redaction, or representing the trailing-off of a thought, ellipses came to characterize in text form the actual pace and cadence of spoken speech. Rather than tweeting, for instance, “Did Trump just say that?” one might have thumbed into their iPhone something more like, “Did… Trump just… say that?” “2017 was…mostly bad,” wrote music critic Rob Arcand in a twitter post sharing his end-of-year-in-music list; “Thank you, Facebook,” snarked GQ editor Kevin Nguyen, following the social network’s snub of his publication’s Colin Kaepernick person-of-the-year story: “So proud to work at… Magazine.”

The elliptical tendency infected mainstream journalism, too: Gail Collins of The New York Times wondered in a December 11th article about whether or not Alabama voters would care that Roy Moore was accused of pedophilia: “History would suggest … not so much.” And in a puff piece about a Newfoundland police constable delivering Christmas gifts to unsuspecting motorists, Jeremy Eaton of CBC News wrote: “For the second year in a row, the detachment in Bay Roberts was rewarding drivers for … being nice.”

It might be tempting to put this fashion down to the entrenching into contemporary consciousness of the three little bubbles that have become such a familiar sign of digital communication. Officially known as the “typing awareness indicator,” those flashing ellipses alert us that the person on the other end of our texting conversation is composing a message. They also appear at the end of nearly every social media post and URL that doesn’t fit into the allotted onscreen real estate.

A persuasive argument could be made that ellipses mimic the stilted, start-stop speech patterns, particularly of the millennial generation — a brand new talk that is not very clear. Like upspeak or vocal fry, the ‘stop-and-go lilt’ is a kind of affectation that has worked its way from the mouths of celebrities on chat shows into quotidian conversation across national and cultural lines. Still another plausible explanation could be twitter’s recently expanded 280-character tweet format. What do we do with all that extra space? Fill it up… with three dots!

But I’d like to see ellipses as something more productive — as thoughtful pauses, suspensions of speech that reflect consideration, gaps that otherwise might be filled with an um, or an uh, or a like. Those kinds of breaks in real-time communication are indicators of complex cognitive processes at work, a careful screening and selecting of the next thought, the next word, the next action. Pausing… it turns out… is a good thing.

One of the ways that a moment’s intermission can be of benefit is in exercising self-control. In the time of 24-hour news cycles, it isn’t enough to just be up on the news; one must also react to it in the appropriate span of time — which is getting ever shorter, due to the onslaught of newsworthy incidents, and the constant turnover of their coverage.

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow claims that our decision-making processes — the ways in which we make sense of the world — are influenced by two mental systems: System 1 reacts quickly to stimuli, much like a reflex would; System 2 is slower and more deliberative. System 1 is the part of our consciousness responsible for hitting a baseball, say, or tallying 2 + 2. System 2 is the part that compares appliances in a department store, or double-checks the validity of a dubious assertion.

One of System 2’s jobs is also, at certain times, to override System 1, if and when it makes a poor decision: “every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell,” writes Kahneman. A second’s delay, it seems, can be enough to stop us posting that nasty comment or inconsiderate reply.

Another way that delay could be advantageous is in reconditioning our ability to wait for things. In the online, digital world, we are so used to instant streams, and buying with one click, that we’ve lost the ability to recognize when the simple act of waiting is either favorable or necessary.

In his 2011 book entitled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the global market expert Frank Partnoy claims that the chief factor in what he calls good decision-making is our ability to manage delay: “That is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes.” We may increasingly want to see instant results to our actions, but timing is integral — a baby takes nine months; a harvest only happens in the autumn. Sometimes we just have to sit still.

So I see reflected in our obsession with ellipses a glimmer of hope for 2018. It shows that, on some level, we are thinking, processing, pausing, resting, resisting, anticipating, and imagining a better world.

Wait for it…