What do digital technologies and grammar have in common?

Today’s exponential rate of technological change no longer affects our economy and society in a linear manner, digital technologies are now more pervasive and inter-connected. We struggle to keep up with the limitless array of technologies and how best to use them. There don’t seem to be any limits and “even if our devices are switched off, cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when our smartphone is within reach” – Ward et al. (2017) Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.

James Hewitt, Head of Science & Innovation at Hintsa Performance has suggested that we need to impose limits to our use of technology, a bit like grammar, structure and punctuation impose limits on our use of language and thereby allowing language to maximise its creativity and usefulness. He argues that unless we choose to create limits on our use of technology “our attention will continue to be harvested to the point of exhaustion.”

As translators, we are constantly keeping up with technology – changes in software, the advances of neural machine translation, artificial intelligence, constant emails and more. Thinking about applying “grammar” rules to limit our use digital technologies resonated with me as a language professional as this framework may be a helpful way of thinking for professional translators as they seek to understand and adapt to technology in a manner that supports their work flows and productivity.

We may be familiar with the technology options available to us, however without any structure to guide our use, we may be diminishing the value and potential of these powerful tools and living with a false sense of productivity and efficiency. Just like in our use of language, if words are awkwardly arranged, our communication and creativity is restricted, takes more effort and becomes more frustrating that it needs to be.

Hewitt presents the case for limiting choice in our digital experience and proposes a new language for technology. Why? Our digital tools will not impose boundaries for us. We need to set ourselves limits, for example, reducing the number of times we check our e-mail per day is associated with significant reductions in stress. People who move their phone to another room significantly outperform those who leave their phone on their desk in assessments of cognitive performance.

The use of a “grammar” for the digital age could lead to enhanced wellbeing and more sustainable performance. Here are three proposed simple adaptations of existing linguistic approaches:

Grammar: Be clear about the purpose of each digital tool that you use. As with words, there may be multiple uses for the same tool, but trying to apply multiple purposes at once is confusing and ineffective.

Structure: As with sentences and paragraphs, sequence your use of digital tools, rather than interweaving them continuously. Consider dividing your workday into shorter working sessions with more precise goals and careful selection of the most appropriate tool.

Punctuation: Pause for clarity regularly and enjoy some disconnected time. Don’t rely on self-control. Consider switching-off your devices and/or putting them out of sight. Remember that idle time is not a waste of time (this is why we often get our best ideas in the shower or during a walk!).

Human beings are adaptable. In seeking to apply these limits, it may feel difficult at the start, just as it does when we are learning a new language, but over time we will internalise the basic rules which underpin optimum use of our digital tools. Hewitt is convinced that “as we pause more regularly, we will enhance clarity, reduce effort, stress, improve learning and interact with technology in more sophisticated and meaningful ways, making better use of the incredible array of tools we have available to us.”

Language and technologies