I type therefore I am
June 7, 2013 10:16 AM   Subscribe

This sheer quantity is in itself something new. All future histories of modern language will be written from a position of explicit and overwhelming information — a story not of darkness and silence but of data, and of the verbal outpourings of billions of lives. Where once words were written by the literate few on behalf of the many, now every phone and computer user is an author of some kind. And — separated from human voices — the tasks to which typed language, or visual language, is being put are steadily multiplying.

In many ways, mass articulacy is a crisis of originality. Something always implicit has become ever more starkly explicit: that words and ideas do not belong only to us, but play out without larger currents of human feeling. There is no such thing as a private language. We speak in order to be heard, we write in order to be read. But words also speak through us and, sometimes, are as much a dissolution as an assertion of our identity.

In his essay ‘Writing: or, the Pattern Between People’ (1932), W H Auden touched on the paradoxical relationship between the flow of written words and their ability to satisfy those using them:
Since the underlying reason for writing is to bridge the gulf between one person and another, as the sense of loneliness increases, more and more books are written by more and more people, most of them with little or no talent. Forests are cut down, rivers of ink absorbed, but the lust to write is still unsatisfied.

Onscreen, today’s torrents of pixels exceed anything Auden could have imagined. Yet the hyper-verbal loneliness he evoked feels peculiarly contemporary. Increasingly, we interweave our actions and our rolling digital accounts of ourselves: curators and narrators of our life stories, with a matching move from internal to external monologue. It’s a realm of elaborate shows in which status is hugely significant — and one in which articulacy itself risks turning into a game, with attention and impact (retweets, likes) held up as the supreme virtues of self-expression.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
So human beings worldwide are now forced to contend with the ennui of knowing that many of our thoughts are unoriginal? ("it’s essential to keep alive a sense of ourselves as distinct from the cascade of self-expression") Compare that to our previous problem:

darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history...for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.

There is nothing whatsoever to deplore about the fact that people today must struggle to express themselves authentically, not when the prior situation was that they were prevented from expressing themselves at all.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:01 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

> attention and impact (retweets, likes) held up as the supreme virtues of self-expression.

Well, I certainly haven't seen anyone portray retweets and likes as supreme virtues of self-expression.
posted by memebake at 11:06 AM on June 7, 2013

Yay! Favorites for everyone!

But on a slightly more serious note, from the future historians' viewpoint, you have to wonder whether the accessibility of authorial tools, and speed/volume of output from them, isn't inversely correlated to the durability of written artifacts.

When we were chipping stuff out on stone tablets, they lasted forever. Copper plates, a few thousand years. Papyrus, a couple of thousand years. Parchment, a thousand or two. Paper, a few hundred. Industrially produced high acid content paper, decades at best. CDs a decade or so even if they don't get scratched, and DVD or Bluray discs just a few years because the scratch factor becomes so overwhelming. As for hard drives with glass platters.. HAHAHAHAHA!

And that doesn't take into account archiving of not just the materials on which writing is stored but the devices necessary to read them. Computers with the right plugs and jacks, functioning operating systems (themselves presumably stored on HDDs or discs), the right software, etc.

Which leaves that hypothetical future historian not with overwhelming chatter, but something more akin to the nice little corpus of medieval history, in which it's possible to read everything. And in that context, there ceases to be a crisis of originality. Historians simply fall back to what medievalists do now. They work on the basis that there may have been lots of texts on a particular topic, but the one remaining one is what they've got, and that's what they'll work with.

In short, durability defines the written corpus. Leaving whyareyouatriangle to become the authoritative source on 21 C overproduction of words.
posted by Ahab at 11:11 AM on June 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

for most of recorded history . . monarchs, priests and nobles reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.

All future histories of modern language will be written from . . . the verbal outpourings of billions of lives.

"My name is Legion, I sing of things,
Look upon my words, ye mighty, and despair!"
posted by Herodios at 11:13 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

durability defines the written corpus

“Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.”
posted by Herodios at 11:18 AM on June 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

> CDs a decade or so even if they don't get scratched

I just put on a Louis Jordan CD someone gave me in 1992 and sure enough, it plays fine. Unca Cecil sez:
The "CD rot" stories that circulated years ago apparently sprang from substandard disks sold by a CD bootlegger in Italy, in which the aluminum oxidized after a short time. That won't or at least shouldn't happen with a properly made CD, nor will such a disk wear out with repeated use (although scratches and other abuse may cause it to fail).
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on June 7, 2013

CDs a decade or so even if they don't get scratched, and DVD or Bluray discs just a few years because the scratch factor becomes so overwhelming.

Sure, if you store your disc collection under the floormats on a dune buggy.

I own a handful of CDs that are about as old as a CD can be (30 years, give or take), and they all sound just as good as the day I bought them. Any media that isn't taken care of will necessarily degrade, but CDs are really easy to keep nice.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:39 AM on June 7, 2013

I maintain originality by refusing to write.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:42 AM on June 7, 2013

It is so good to see such a great article on such a profound and important current phenomena. I doubt I'm alone in thinking that the very medium of communication itself is set to change precisely as a result of this volume. What I mean, is that individual's words, paragraphs and text based writing will become 'atomic elements' for a larger scale mass 'molecular' kind of communication that self organizes our output and maps the cartography of collective intelligence. Each of us will be able to see and interact with the whole of us as one (and I love this phrase in the article) massively articulate aggregated self.

It will have sets. It will be visual. It will have networks, topology and ontology. It will envelop 'big data' and aggregate/allow drill down. It will embrace functions that are currently divided between words and numbers. It will be massively multi-user and conceptual in orientation.

As an example, you will say or type "Love" and you will be presented with a giant virtual living organism that is composed of galaxy like clusters of text, movies, pictures and actual people who are visiting and participating in the curation and ongoing evolution of such an externalization of our collective mind. It will be like a landscape of sub-worlds that overlap and blend into each other depending on activity and chosen perspective. You will scroll through time to see back even before this living collective virtual hybrid artificial and augmented intelligence schema was born. You can go ask Socrates a question about love and get an answer from his corpus of imprinted intelligence without having to open one page of that text.

Anyways, the article is great. This is one of those things that will seem alien to most up until the 'moment' it begins to blossom. Isn't the Web kinda stale already? Why can't I search for "intelligence on the net" and see a collaborative virtual rendition of all human thought related to it? Google and a lot of other companies have built 'knowledge graphs' but they all lack imagination (I've talked to a few of them) on what to do beyond the backend and continue to force us to drink drops organized in paper cup lists as we stand before the ocean of our shared intelligence. We remain dammed behind a wall of meaning representation that was designed for paper and papyrus. Give me citiscapes, knowledge gardens and sailboats and surfboards and other world mirroring ways to organize, explore and share my information.

Here's a toast to any signal that points in the direction of the realization of just how much more fun is ahead of us. Web pages served us well but collective intelligence should look a lot more like today's games than today's 'web' of pages. Here's hoping someone will start letting us see ourselves better than yesterday's inherited page based paradigm allow. Spiders are kinda primitive on the tree of life and I think we would do better to be monkeys swinging on vines hanging from the branches of the tree of knowledge that already exists despite the obscured view we have available to us. Ping me if you have ideas or see something that is making that happen - I'd hate to miss it's first days which are sure to happen any day now.
posted by astrobiophysican at 2:13 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm with Ahab in that while it's delightful that we have all this material, so little of it's likely to survive to a point when historians are going to be interested in it.

The biggest issue for me is reading electronic data. Written word in durable materials - bronze plaques, glossy paper, things pressed into concrete and stone - will remain as always, and be decipherable to anyone who can read the language. It gets trickier though. Vinyl records play when you slap a needle on them just so, and spin them at just the right speed, but you can work that out by trial and error. CDs and tape need to be decoded. You not only need the physical tool, but the correct knowledge of how to unpack that information. Moreso for "pure" electronic media like hard drives. I have hard drives, discs and flashies that I can't access because they're too old - at like five or six years old, the drivers required to power them are no longer available. I doubt the future history of our age will be lacking for want of my tax files and old resumes.

The things that survive will be the ones that always survive - paper, metal, clay - and writings in plastic, too, I suspect. I can easily see all our bits just floating away, once we're done with this age of civilization.
posted by Jilder at 2:56 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Clouds... they evaporate
posted by yoHighness at 5:02 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

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