Sour emotions

Ahmad Rafay Alam May 29, 2010

Yesterday, I was paralysed by a strong sense of foreboding that I would, one day, have to explain to my daughter what an emoticon is.

An emoticon is the characters on a computer keyboard representing an emotion, like the well known :) happy face or the ;) representing a wink. Trust the internet to generate hundreds if not thousands of emoticons.  You can now inform someone of your shock “:-o)” or the fact you are jumping for joy “\o o/”. You can give someone a Rock On/Sign of the Horns, if you want “\,,/ \,,/”.  You can even give someone a rose “@}-;-`---”

Actually, emoticons are quite cool. They summarise your response to information and are more efficient than Twitter. That’s not what gives me the Cold Shivers of Foreboding. What upsets me about emoticons is that my daughter will grow up thinking the word is real when in fact it is not.  It’s another one of those words the internet has either appropriated, like windows, mouse and surfing or just plain invented, like pwned (p-owned, as in owned, as in humiliated), lol (laughing out loud) and the know-when-to-start-worrying-about-who-you’re-chatting-with asl? (Age/Sex/Location?). I’m convinced that words like these are invented by internet nerds somewhere in The Ether as a means of getting back at people cooler than them in school. Why else in the world would someone actually say, without the aid of a straightjacket, that they will “double-click a mouse to downsize a window”?

So I did what any parent would do in similar circumstances. I called a friend for advice.Turns out she thought emoticons were cool too; that these representations for words and emotions were like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, only much easier to understand and without the attendant worries of having to add or subtract one owl from two snakes.

You may think I am being wistful and foreboding for the sake of it. But I assure you I’m not prone to emotional outbursts. Emoticon is short for emotional icon, which is what an emoticon is. My foreboding comes from the fact that I – we – stand on the cusp of a new world where the generations after us will never know, unless they take the time to find out, the meaning behind something so innocuous. It’s the loss of connection to a past common to this generation. Kind of like when my grandfather shouts every time he speaks on the phone.

Back when long distance calls were called trunk calls and had to be booked in advance, the entire family would gather at the appointed time and wait anxiously for the invisible operator to pass our connection to another ear in Europe, the US or even as close by as Karachi or Peshawar. Before globalisation, when the world was still a large place, the act of communication was so fantastic that it was, at least in these parts, a family event. Now that I have Skype, Twitter and the Facebook messenger service, it’s tough to find a moment alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I twit with the best of them and share a work-atrophying interest in Facebook that rivals any other. Connectivity makes me efficient and informs me of things happening all over the world.  I don’t even have to watch cricket any more. That entertainment is more than amply replaced by twits in various stages of despair over repeated Pakistani losses. God bless technology!

Published in the Express Tribune, May 30th, 2010.

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