Swans Commentary » swans.com June 28, 2010  



Techspeak And The Abuse Of Language


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - June 28, 2010)  

Thinking Machines

I think that one of the most bizarre aspects of the premise of the Terminator movie franchise is that machines will one day develop a consciousness, and that such consciousness will have a singular sinister purpose: to annihilate humankind. Now the machines in these movies can obviously be reprogrammed to serve humankind's interests (as we saw in the second and third movies) but ultimately and inevitably, the machines "wish" to destroy us, and it is in their nature to do so. (1)

While the doomsday plot of the Terminator movies seems to be a somewhat compelling drama about what can happen when human decisions are wholly entrusted to computers, software programs, or machines -- without any failsafe or way of correcting mechanical error -- I think that we are perhaps formulating the dangers of technology in the wrong way. The Terminator franchise, as well as more than a few hopeful technophiles of repute, (2) assume that we will one day be able to create machines that can think or believe. (3) I really wish that we could drop these sorts of expressions from our language, because they are often used to signal some sort of "inner" processes of a non-physical, immaterial nature -- a Cartesian theatre -- instead of simply words that express a particular type of observable behavior coupled with as yet to be defined neurochemical interactions.

<fail><insert code>x</insert code></fail>

As I observe the relish with which we have embraced the age of cellular technology and the Internet, I think the danger is not so much cell phones or computers gaining consciousness and concocting plans to annihilate the human race; instead, one danger is the pollution of the literary or creative mind: the erosion of our natural languages into a universally banal system of acronyms where sometimes programming codes are substituted for punctuation or punctuation is used outside of its normal use (e.g., :-)) to express emotion (e.g., happiness) or some mental disposition. While I rarely ever hear such acronyms uttered or spoken, it is perhaps only a matter of time that such hackneyed expressions enter spoken conversations at even the most informal times. As a graduate student who proofreads student papers on the side, I have noticed that netspeak has found its way into essays written by college students. This is a very troubling occurrence but I am almost certain that this probably happens at all levels of the educational or professional spectrum. While there are those who think that language should be efficient and concise, netspeak or textspeak seems to capture experience with very trite expressions. "LOL" expresses the humor of a situation or thing and of course the physiological reaction to it (namely, laughter) but what is peculiar is that there isn't a day that passes where I see someone online treating "LOL" as verb to be conjugated. For example, "I lolled at the joke" or "they were lolling at the gag." To consider "LOL" as a verb that can be conjugated stretches the bounds of language but contrary to the idea that the use of netspeak abbreviates language into a more efficient one, the need to conjugate "LOL" according to the existing verb forms of our natural languages seems to suggest mere laziness. "Laugh" only contains two more letters than "lol" and if you break out in a sweat typing two additional letters, then you really need to reconsider your idea of what it means to abbreviate language.

While I catch myself sometimes using such terms online (much to my chagrin), I really cringe every time I do it because it signifies not only a failure to engage my creativity but the imagination of the people to whom I am writing. To conjugate "LOL" or other acronyms with an air of rectitude is problematic because as these terms find permanence in the everyday spoken language, a sense of our word history is lost. While there is a standard definition of the term "lolling," which is "to recline" (middle English cognates include "lullaby"), to "lol at Jim Carrey" would not only constitute the wrong word use but eschew "loll"'s etymological word lineage. What is perhaps troubling now is that even long tenured librarians at my institution are now comfortable telling patrons to "google" search terms. Since when did "Google" become a verb?

Perhaps the most self-contradictory thing for me in making such admonishments is that I understand that language changes: what passes for the appropriate expression to utter or write will sometimes slip out of vogue or merit recontextualization into something that has an entirely different meaning in another age. "To call on Mary" in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries meant "to visit" but no one really uses that expression in such a context anymore; rather, we would use "to call on Mary" in perhaps a classroom context where the teacher asks Mary a question. But I still believe the danger of converting natural languages into netspeak is that it destroys the <ahem>richness</ahem> of natural language: its poetic, searching, imaginative character. The paradox here is that code, the creative tool we use to build the networld, has the capability of restricting the creativity, power, or character of human experience once it is introduced into natural language as a legitimate way of communicating about human experience. There can be no frightening thunderstorms, blazing sunsets, or heavy feelings of regret revealed through the lens of netspeak: its world is a world of compression for compression's sake.

Technology, Work, and Leisure

Labor was once a thing that people did in order to pass the time as well as support their material needs. It also gave life meaning when people either did not want to find meaning in the contemplation of the Ideas. (4) I now see in many ways that studies of history, language, art, and the Ideas ought to be considered primarily bourgeois or aristocratic fetishes of previous centuries as much as golf can be considered an empty pastime of the twilight years. As a culture, we have long moved away from the speculative life in which private free time was consumed by the contemplation or analysis of ideas, history, literature, or the exploration of artistic impulses. Free time is now spent online.

Technology has either made human labor irrelevant and/or inefficient: you can simply ask the autoworker laid off because machines now assemble the cars he or she used to make, or you can ask any office manager how many times he/she has scolded employees for spending too much time on YouTube instead of actually doing work.

Instead of seeing machines and programs as becoming potentially conscious and opposed to our existence (not only does this theme emerge in the Terminator franchise but in movies such as I, Robot and 2001: A Space Odyssey), I think that we need to avoid allowing netspeak or textspeak to substitute for our natural languages and avoid allowing leisure to be consumed by technological fetish. I went to a basketball game recently and was amazed that in the heat of the game, when the teams were tied with three seconds left in regulation, almost all of the spectators were thumbing away on their Blackberries. It is as if the tense emotional elements of the game had to be "reported" to another Blackberry user hundreds or even thousands of miles away in order to be fully enjoyed. The fact that as ordinary citizens we feel the need to electronically report details of primarily an event of leisure seems to cheapen the experience as well as diminish the enjoyment that leisure brings. It is as if our experiences of the game, as well as the game itself, cannot be taken or enjoyed for what it is: as a thing that came and went. We want the game and our experiences frozen for all of time as a collection of camera shots, texts, or tweets. This is perhaps the one of the mistaken beliefs that characterizes the most fascistic forms of technophilia: the notion that we can capture change or preserve transient moments.

The contradiction expressed with netspeak and the cheapening of leisure by technology is twofold. On the one hand, we want technology to change language in order to make natural language more of "our own" or "authentic" when our adaptation of language merely involves applying programming code that someone else has written to our natural language. On the other hand, in adapting natural languages to programming code, we view language as something that ought to change while attempts to encapsulate the events of experience in bits and pixels show that we desire an unchanging language to immortalize finitude.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture.   (back)


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1.  See note 3 below.  (back)

2.  http://www.aaai.org/home.html  (back)

3.  I refer to these as "mental" verbs: verbs expressing a mental action or determination. Others are "to wish", "to understand", "to recognize", "to know", etc.  (back)

4.  There are many instances of thinkers in western civilization who equate the good life to the life of the mind. Aristotle, for example, praised the contemplative life, which was a life spent contemplating mathematical or abstract ideas. See his Nicomachean Ethics.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 28, 2010