[Humanist] 24.176 how sweetly can you tweet?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jul 7 08:06:35 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 176.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 06 Jul 2010 18:09:57 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: degeneration of language

In "Words" (New York Review of Books, 15 July 2010), Tony Judt writes,

> Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelgänger. The same is
> true of technical advance. In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and
> Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for
> exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for
> unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the
> medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My
> children observe of their own generation that the communicative
> shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication
> itself: “people talk like texts.”
> This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the
> ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal
> convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have
> privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in
> rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to
> mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether
> you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right:
> the outcome is anarchy.
> In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated
> contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His
> critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they
> were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately
> prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy
> prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write
> badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are
> reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”).
> Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise
> of “nospeak.”

Is a poetics of Tweets possible?

If it's true that certain thoughts become thinkable when the right language
for them comes along (for example, through the invention of a device, such
as the digital computer, which provides a powerful metaphor), then language
is in a sense deterministic. We can observe the deleterious effects of a
highly limited vocabulary, or even a single word which brings limiting
assumptions along with it. But, I wonder, are the fears expressed by Tony
Judt, leading to the condemnation of texting and tweeting, in need of
qualification? It is fashionable nowadays uncritically to celebrate
expressions of popular culture, just as it is fashionable to attribute bad
behaviour in public (such as routinely shouting rather than talking quietly
on a residential street or other forms of aggressive action) to the ways of
another culture, which of course must be welcomed. David Crystal's book on
texting plays with the condemnations of texting. He has a point, but still I
wonder. How do we navigate between strong influences and determinism? Where
in (what I assume is) the continuum between take-it-or-leave-it and The Borg
do we locate the Bad Language to which Judt points?

These points, it seems to me, must concern us deeply because we are intimate
with the machine. Serious arguments assert that machines *are*
deterministic. Is our machine crippling our expressive powers? How does it
*feel* when you tweet? What sort of things would you never say in that form
-- putting aside issues of privacy and discretion? Is the real worry that
masses of people will primarily know language of that kind? Look at the
images in the Dictionary of Words in the Wild (http://lexigraphi.ca/), ask
how and what they are communicating.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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