A New Longing for Visuality, or: How My iPhone Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emoji

With the latest iOS update to my iPhone, I started noticing something strange. Now, when I type into my phone to send someone a text message, the autocomplete function offers word suggestions as it usually does, but it also suggests related emojis and images for whatever I am typing.

Hence, it is quite possible for me to accept my phone’s suggestions and send messages like these, punctuated with words but also with emoji:

I [heart] you

Do you have a [present] for me?

I am going to [sleep] now but [see] you tomorrow

That is a really cute [dog]

I am buying new [shoes]

When will you be [home]?

Brr so [snowy] outside

I’m old-fashioned and text-only with this blog, but fill in the brackets with emoji using your imagination and you’ll understand what I mean.

With this technological update, emoji are taking on an added form of communicative currency they didn’t have before. Before, they functioned more as addenda: cute expressions to insert to the end of a text message, or to indicate a particular emotional response to a friend’s comment. Objects to cluster together for emphasis, humor, or effect. But usually separate from words, independent from the text-based modicums of communication in the phone itself. Before, emojis were fun accessories. Now my phone seems to want them to be more central to the act of communication itself. An emoji, an image, now wants to stand in for the actual word or thing.

“Next thing, we’ll be texting in hieroglyphics!” my mom recently teased me when I pointed this novelty out to her. (Yes, both my parents regularly text in emoji, far more often than I do. Such goes the divide between the so-called Boomers and the Millennials.)

But, this turn back to iconographic writing aside, something else struck me about this programming change in the iPhone, and also about our recent state of image-centric communication. The ways technology and media are promoting image and visual representation as central to the communicative act – through videos, graphics, GIFs, emojis, memes, and so forth – contradicts some of the earlier impulses in text-based culture that have privileged the written word above the “mere” image. (It also is far more complex than any bemoaning of “writing is dead” or “the written word is dead”; no, human communication is flexible and multifaceted, and it will continue to evolve in unexpected ways.) Above all, for me, this increasing centrality of the image ties back to some of the underlying mainstream cultural assumptions that have historically helped make a case for, or against, alternative visual/physical modes of communications such as sign language.

I won’t go into the full history of how sign language has been understood alongside other text- or speech-based systems of communication, but in short it is complex and ever-shifting, like the history of language itself. Suffice it to say that sign language enjoyed a moment of flourishing in the nineteenth century, bolstered by contemporaneous cultural ideas about “natural” language and gesture and also the establishment of schools for the deaf in America and Europe, before advancing ideas about the supposed superiority of oral communication, even for deaf people, stifled it even from deaf institutions from the 1880s onward. Sign language nevertheless survived underground in deaf clubs, social circles, and establishments for decades before finally being recognized as a complex and unique language by academic researchers in the 1960s – since which time it has seen a renaissance of sorts, even as anxieties persist about the influence of technology and normalization on how d/Deaf people communicate. Nevertheless, contemporary mainstream fascinations with image and visual representation, for me, drive to the heart of what makes sign language so useful and appealing. They also point to some of the reasons I think hearing people in the twenty-first century are becoming newly aware of ASL, in ways they weren’t before.

One of the early Romantic ideas about sign language, which enabled its rise in the nineteenth century, was that sign language was in some ways a more “natural” form of language, linked to gesture and the innate connection between an object and an communicative idea. In keeping with the Romantic turn toward nature and intuition, nineteenth-century thinkers and social reformists were fascinated by the “innate” or “immediate” form of representation they saw operating in the sign language used by “Deaf and Dumb” persons – even if they didn’t always give it equal standing alongside spoken language or systems of writing. Now, we’re not living in the Romantic period anymore, but when I turned on my iPhone a few weeks ago, after its recent system update, I felt struck by how my phone had a similar sort of impulse. It wanted me to substitute the “mere” written word with the image, which by my phone’s little computer-logic seemed more analogous with the thing itself. (Or what other impulses are operating here? Humor? Playfulness? A bit of self-irony? The novelty of using images to subvert words?) One of the most unique aspects of ASL is its visual-spatial classifier system, in which signers use handshapes combined with physical space and movement not just to illustrate the string of words describing what happened at a particular time, but to enact some aspect of how the event itself took place. I’m an aficionado of all forms of written words, but nevertheless the visual richness of ASL can sometimes get closer to the thing itself than a written sentence can, or at least can approach that thing in an entirely different way.

So, here’s what I asked myself when my phone started prompting me to insert cat and dog and bird emojis all over my texts: where might signing fit into this new and accelerating fascination with the image and with direct visual representation? What kind of cultural moment are we living in, and how might this turn toward the visual affect how sign language is seen, used, and understood beyond traditional Deaf communities? Note that by no means am I buying into the romanticized (and often simplified) notion that every sign in ASL is somehow gestural or immediately iconographic, or somehow more “actual” or “representative” than its verbal equivalent – but I am acknowledging that, in a more nuanced way and especially through the creativity of classifiers, signs can indeed lean toward a unique spatial and visual immediacy. Contemporary mainstream culture is already playing with the undisputed superiority of the written word over the image or the physical object, and challenging these assumptions in new technology-driven ways – so how might this existing subversion affect the larger social perception of signing systems of communication? What might it mean to be a signer, within this environment? What hybrid systems of communication might arise next? Is there an unexplained longing for some alternate form of communication, beyond the written word, going on here?

The above set of questions, I hereby propose to you, my readers and fellow emoji-users (and fellow signers). Replies hereby accepted by form of emoji text messages, or alternatively via signing Glide video messages.