Post-literate media

The more data we collect via Google, YouTube and Facebook, the less likely we are to understand what it means

Topics: Internet Culture, Media Criticism,

Post-literate media (Credit: kentoh via Shutterstock)
This 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?

The 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-15th 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 post-literate 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 “rally.”

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 wickedness:

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 hope.

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.

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