Word Order: The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear

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This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

I speak Spanish to God,
Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.

— Emperor Charles V

But in which language does
one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The
questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we’ve learned
to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans
the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges
the assignations on Match.com and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs,
catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to
connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.

Why then does it come to pass
that the more data we collect — from Google, YouTube, and Facebook — the less
likely we are to know what it means?

conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the
presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no
connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has
no experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964,
proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our
tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Media were to be understood
as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or
philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers.
Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of
feeling and thought.

To account for the
transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan
examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological
status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention
of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on
manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of
the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph,
telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer),
favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the
dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word
replaced with the icon and the rebus.

Within a year of its
publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy
Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New
York Herald Tribune
proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin,
Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism —
“The electric light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all
mankind as our skin” — McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look
into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.

Floating the Fiction
of Democracy

In 1964 I was slow to take
the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan
had listed as endangered — writing, for The Saturday Evening Post,
inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an
effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an
attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks,
and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the
referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.

The judgment was poorly
timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of
the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the
distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were
increasingly difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan
meant by the phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a
television history of America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was
allotted roughly 73 seconds in which to account for the origins of World War
II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel
footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in
the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the
spring of 1938.

McLuhan regarded the medium
of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression
of a thought. The voice of the first person singular becomes incorporated into
the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom of wish
and dream; the viewer’s participation in the insistent and ever-present promise
of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as “the huge
educational enterprise that we call advertising.” By which he didn’t mean the
education of a competently democratic citizenry — “Mosaic news is neither
narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment” — but rather as
“the gathering and processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue
frogmen of the mind” intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of
human credulity and desire.

McLuhan died on New Year’s
Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World Wide Web, but his concerns
over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in which it is the machine
that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing) are
consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron Lanier,
who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual
human expression to “a primitive, retrograde activity.” Among the framers of
the digital constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in the
early programming of virtual reality.

In the same way that McLuhan
in his more optimistic projections of the electronic future had envisioned
unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state of freedom not
unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too Lanier had
entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book You
Are Not a Gadget
, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on
the surface of the Web is “more for machines than people” — machines that
place advertising at the “center of the human universe… the only form of
expression meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any
other form of expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to
the point of meaninglessness.”

The reduction of individual
human expression to a “primitive, retrograde activity” accounts for the product
currently being sold under the labels of “election” and “democracy.” The
candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate an opinion
poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news media’s
expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the
commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of
democracy — the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200
million in the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of
2008 — reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.

Like the music in elevators,
the machine-made news comes and goes on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same
footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries, what was said last week
certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now, the
sequence returning as surely as the sun, demanding little else from the
would-be citizen except devout observance. French Novelist Albert Camus in the
1950s already had remanded the predicament to an aphorism: “A single sentence
will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”

Ritual becomes the form of
applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define as pattern recognition —
Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is not a golf
ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s
googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the
guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their
own invention — money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl — the technology can
be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so
arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it,
best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified
(as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super PAC)
the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling
of things rather than from the making of them.

The Voice of Money
Talking to Money

Never have so many labels
come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and MSNBC, but also on the
Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The
achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of “innovative delivery
strategies” that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with “quicker
access to valued customers.”

Maybe I miss the “key
performance indicators,” but I don’t know how a language meant to be disposable
enriches anybody’s life. I can understand why words construed as product
placement serve the interest of the corporation or the state, but they don’t “enhance”
or “empower” people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression
a voice, and therefore a life, that they can somehow recognize as their own.

The regime change implicit in
the ascendant rule of signs funds the art of saying nothing. Meaning
evaporates, the historical perspective loses its depth of field, the vocabulary
contracts. George Orwell made the point in 1946, in his essay “Politics and the
English Language.” “The slovenliness of our language,” he said, “makes it
easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one
can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward
political regeneration.”

Advertising isn’t interested
in political regeneration. The purpose is to nurture foolish thoughts, and the
laziness of mind suckled at the silicone breasts of CBS and Disney counts as a
consumer benefit. The postliterate sensibility is offended by anything that
isn’t television, views with suspicion the compound sentence, the subordinate
clause, words of more than three syllables. The home and studio audiences
become accustomed to hearing voices swept clean of improvised literary devices,
downsized into data points, degraded into industrial-waste product.

Ambiguity doesn’t sell the
shoes. Neither does taking time to think, or allowing too long a pause between
the subject and the predicate. In the synthetic America the Beautiful, everything
good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right. The
body politic divides into constituencies of one, separate states of wishful
thinking receding from one another at the speed of light.

Every loss of language,
whether among the northern Inuit or the natives of the Jersey
Shore, the critic George Steiner
writes down as “an impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche”
comparable to the depletion of species in California
and Ecuador.
The abundance of many languages (as many as 68 of them in Mexico), together
with the richness of their lexical and grammatical encoding (the many uses of the
subjunctive among certain tribes in Africa) stores, as do the trees in
Amazonia, a “boundless wealth of possibility” that cannot be replaced by the
machinery of the global market.

“The true catastrophe of Babel,” says Steiner, “is
not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful
of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues… Anglo-American standardized
vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and
“the imperatives of commercial greed.”

Which is the voice of money
talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize
in Literature in 1993, denominates as “the language that drinks blood,” happy
to “admire its own paralysis,” possessed of “no desire or purpose other than
maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental.
Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing a shelter for despots.”
Language designed to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege,” prioritized
to fit the needs of palsied bureaucracy, retrograde religion, or our own 2012
presidential election.

History’s Grim
Data-Mining Operations

The vocabulary is limited but
long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome
didn’t engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by
the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as “speaking tools,” animate
but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.

The sponsors of the Spanish
Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran
data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the
content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the
Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South
Africa during most of the twentieth century
the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten
Breytenbach likens to the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden
orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang
and the fluttering flag.”

The Internet equips the fear
of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than
were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own
national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words
earmarked as subversive, among them “collective bargaining,” “occupy,” and

The hope and exercise of
freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the
keeping of “the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have
a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness.” The force and power of the words
themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening
to New York
publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I
don’t find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing
contained, as did the fifteenth-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg’s
printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a
Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of

Through printing, tender boys
and gentle girls, chaste without foul stain,
take in whatever mars the purity of mind or body…
Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
should be respected and held to be nobler
than all goods, unless she has suffered
degradation in the brothel of the printing
presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
harlot in print.

The humanist scholars across
Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to
Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University
of Bologna, who was appalled by “a new
kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany… Anyone
is free to print whatever they wish… for the sake of entertainment, what would
best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books.”

McLuhan in 1964 ridiculed the
same sort of fear and trembling in Grub Street by observing that, in the
twentieth century as in the fifteenth, the literary man preferred “to ‘view
with alarm’ and ‘point with pride,’ while scrupulously ignoring what’s going on.”
He understood that the concerns had to do with the moving of the merchandise as
opposed to the making of it, where the new money was to be found, how to
collect what tolls on which shipments of the grammar and the syntax. Then as
now, the questions are neither visionary nor new. They accompanied the building
of the nation’s railroads and the stringing of its telephone poles, and as is
customary under the American definition of free enterprise, I expect them to be
resolved in favor of monopoly.

The more relevant questions
are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do
we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven
pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human
value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?

The History of the
Ultimate Toy

Every age is an age of
information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much
notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture,
encrypted code, or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as
restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that
drift across the surface of the human face.

The written word emerges from
the spoken word, the radar screen from signal fires, compositions for full
orchestra and choir from the tapping of a solitary drum. The various currencies
of glyph and sign trade in concert and in competition with one another. Books
will perhaps become more expensive and less often seen, but clearly they are
not soon destined to vanish from the earth. Bowker’s Global Books in Print
accounts for the publication of 316,480 new titles in 2010, up from 247,777 in
1998. In the United States
in 2010, 751,729,000 books were sold, the revenue stream of $11.67 billion
defying the trend of economic downturn and the voyaging into cyberspace. The
book remains, and likely will remain, the primary store of human energy and

The times, like all others,
can be said to be the best of times and the worst of times. The Internet can be
perceived as a cesspool of misinformation, a phrase that frequently bubbles up
to a microphone in Congress or into the pages of the Wall Street Journal;
it also can be construed as a fountain of youth pouring out data streams in
directions heretofore unimaginable and unknown, allowing David Carr, media
columnist and critic for the New York Times, to believe that “someday,
I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am
and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming.”

Carr presumably knows whereof
he speaks, and I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest
machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden
tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write
for it.

The author doesn’t speak to a
fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she
addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords — insurance, Steve Jobs,
Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony — but is neither willing nor able to
wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as
tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the
Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.

The strength of language
doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word
work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm,
“is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the
ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do
language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same
thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his
rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: “So long as men can breathe or
eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Maybe our digital technology
is still too new. Writing first appears on clay tablets around 3000 BC; it’s
another 3,300 years before mankind invents the codex; from the codex to
moveable type, 1,150 years; from moveable type to the Internet, 532 years.
Forty years haven’t passed since the general introduction of the personal
computer; the World Wide Web has only been in place for 20.

We’re still playing with
toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but
language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and
its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political
and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor
Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire.
New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair
has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared
him to Montaigne. This essay introduces “Means of Communication,” the
Spring 2012 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly.

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Copyright 2012 Lewis H. Lapham

This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Image by Ragesoss,
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