Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Question of Technology's Impact Upon Language

In another blog, user:navelgazer asked me a complex question, the nature of which resonates with me personally.
It's been said that our language is the truest reflection of our culture. What are your thoughts on how technology has changed our language? It has been argued that symbols, such as emoticons, have enabled us to communicate across cultures and languages. How do you feel it has influenced writing in general? Is honing language down to a single word or image more or less precise?
In this blog, I'm going to attempt to organize my thoughts for an answer.

I'll start off by referencing John McWhorter's book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. It was such a significant text that I will have to read it at least one more time to fully appreciate the overarching lesson in it, but one thing I came away with was that there is, technically, no such thing as language as most people conventionally understand it. In any given region, during any given era, what we conceive as language is actually only the most popular dialect. Language exists in a state of continual flux, modified by a staggering amount of influences which directly impact it or which impact each other and the results of that collusion in turn impacts dialect. Some of these influences include education, finances, popular media (also affected by financial interest), contact with other cultures (both recreational and military), isolation from other cultures, political agenda, and so many others.

In particular, the technological developments of the 20th century accelerated, I think, the morphing of dialects around the world by dint of rendering geographical borders irrelevant. Phone calls, radio and television broadcasts, and finally the adaptation of ARPANET into the Internet put far-flung territories of the world in touch with each other. A renaissance on a global scale, we exchanged ideas (motivated both by peace and hostility) and we were all at the very least subtly, but indelibly, altered. I fought in Panama and as we flew in Blackhawks over the lush, dense jungle and coffee-colored rivers, once in a while a clearing would reveal a tiny village of several huts, and indigenous Panamanian Indians would creep out to look at us. You could tell which boy in each village was the alpha male, because he was the one in blue jeans.

Language functions just like that. One culture brushes against another and catalyzes change. The slang expression skotch (pron. SKOH-CH), meaning "a slight amount," is a regional term, not ubiquitous throughout North American culture. Those familiar with it may think of farms or carpentry--"Slide that beam up just a skotch."--but it's quite a telling term. The father of the person using that term probably served in the military and was stationed in Japan, where he heard the word sukoshi (pron. "SKOH-SHEE"), which means "a little bit," as in nihongo-ga sukoshi wakarimasu, "I understand a little Japanese." Why did sukoshi take off but chotto never did, when they're as common as each other and mean essentially the same thing? Fate and chance.

Many of our slang terms come from the military as well as other specialized occupations. Language also evolves when a disenfranchised minority group develops its own vernacular to contribute to a sense of community and exclusivity. It evolves further when the majority class decides those phrases are hip and cool. It evolves still further when marketing agencies package this edgy new slang and distribute it for sale around the nation, around the world. And though an English major disciplined in the ways of the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition may experience a cardiac arrest to hear egregious grammatical abuses attain popular coinage, it's still incorrect to call this a "devolution." In the context of language, all change is a form of progress, an evolution--even when a generation emulates the clothing and language of generations in the past. It is impossible for language to backslide, even when its "progress" is declining toward self-defeat. Not so with technology, where it's conceivably possible to abandon the path of nanotechnology and go back to simple machines and iron weapons (but why would we want to?).

That was a considerable tangent. I wanted to talk about the impact of technology upon language, as per my limited education. That's why I'm hacking this out here, to organize my thoughts and see, physically, what's more important to mention since it all has equal weight in my head.

In our thirst to learn and experience more, seek out new stimuli, telecommunicative technology has evolved rapidly. I couldn't type at all until I got my first e-mail account through St. Cloud State University, in 1993, and my desire to jump into messaging and Web browsing prompted me to learn. Within two years I could type 110wpm with 98% accuracy. I think this is analogous to most people's relationship with technology, be it online access, telephones, or all the expensive little appointments with which we have laden ourselves. Someone made a compelling argument that "cyborgs," cybernetic organisms of both humanity and machinery, were not the exclusive domain of sci-fi literature, but they are currently present and among us. We are already cyborgs, denoted by our reliance, our dependence upon the Internet and cell phones. What a blow our business, entertainment, and social cultures would take if we were abruptly robbed of these tools!

But when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you. We can't avail ourselves of this flashy, convenient technology without "flashiness" and "convenience" embedding themselves in our DNA. To satisfy the first, we pick up and abuse the latest in slang, whatever we glean from movies and music; for the second, we simply become lazy and demand that technology accommodates our need. In fact, the advance of technology has conditioned us to demand further advances faster than technology can supply them. People thought nothing of sitting down for hours and composing a thoughtful, well-worded letter, dipping quill in ink and working by candlelight, to communicate with friends and family. Now, the concept of taking 20 minutes aside to scrawl out a note in our deplorable handwriting is an inconceivable labor. "It's so much easier to send an e-mail," we whine. The exasperated rejoinder to this is, "Fine, whatever. Send me an e-mail, then, I just want to hear from you." At this, we sigh heavily, roll our eyes, and mewl that even writing an e-mail is too hard.

Google's recent April Fool's joke was based on this premise: Gmail Autopilot was designed to compose an e-mail or respond to received e-mail, for the user's convenience. They took it to a ridiculous length, but it really is a service people want. It wouldn't be long, however, before they required another service which would summarize the protracted exchange and interpret it for the them. There is a logical disconnect between the obligation people feel to maintain social relationships and the motivation to expend the effort necessary to do so, and people expect technology to fill that gap.

I'm getting farther and farther from my point, from the original question. This was a useful exercise, in that I hope I've unloaded boxes of clutter and cruft from my head, so that I can make a later attempt to actually answer the question. Jeez.

I did end up composing a response in Open Salon. It didn't make much more sense, though. And I'm terrible with titles, so when people see the headline, it doesn't hook them. I actually enjoyed composing it, though it forced me to admit to a few inelegant truths, but I have to accept that idiots do rule by numerical superiority.

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