“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”
That was the final transmission from the Mars rover, Opportunity. In the 20 hours it took that message to reach Earth, Opportunity (affectionately known as “Oppy”) died alone in the barren Martian desert, bombarded by a sandstorm.
This simple, factual statement transmitted from a machine 140 million miles away is enough to move one to tears—then laughter. It seems absurd, doesn’t it? A cold, mechanical object made of nuts and bolts and wires is capable of making a statement that is so utterly human and heartbreaking.
How is that?
The answer is found in the power of human language.
Words do so much more than simply communicate information; they shape our imaginations and trigger our emotions. They are so powerful that even a machine can move us through a spectrum of emotional reactions. After all, Oppy is just an abandoned hunk of metal, resting silently on our closest planetary neighbor. His words, however, are still alive.
Twentieth-century American linguist Benjamin Whorf studied, at great length, the impact words have in shaping our thought lives and, ultimately, our human experiences. He famously said:
“Language is not simply a reporting device for experience, but a defining framework for it.”
If this is true—and we believe it is—writing is serious business. It’s not “just the facts, ma’am.” No, it’s so much more than that. By selecting the right words, the right voice, the right tone, we can evoke emotional responses, persuade minds, spark curiosity, and even stir the depths of human response. That’s why when we say things like #EveryWordCounts and it pays to #BePrecise, we truly mean it. Words matter. Language matters. And we should seek to communicate clearly and deeply at every… Opportunity.
For a fascinating story on Oppy, check out this NY Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/science/mars-opportunity-rover-dead.html
And for a little more on the actual last transmission (and the social media reaction), check this out: https://laist.com/2019/02/16/jpl_mars_rover_opportunity_battery_is_low_and_its_getting_dark.php
What are your thoughts about communication and machines?