Author Lewis Lapham reminds us of the phrase made (in)famous by Emperor Charles V:
“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”
So, what of the language of the internet? Again, Lapham offers a fitting and damning summary, this time courtesy of a lesser mortal, critic George Steiner:
“The true catastrophe of Babel 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.”
More from the keyboard of Lewis Lapham on how the communicative promise of the internet is being usurped by commerce and the “lowest common denominator”.
[div class=attrib]From TomDispatch:[end-div]
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 datastreams 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 19th and 20th 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.
[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]