Dec 10, 2013
The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear
Posted on Apr 23, 2012
By Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly
The times, like all others, can be said to be the best of times and the worst of times. The Internet can be perceived as a cesspool of misinformation, a phrase that frequently bubbles up to a microphone in Congress or into the pages of the Wall Street Journal; it also can be construed as a fountain of youth pouring out data streams in directions heretofore unimaginable and unknown, allowing David Carr, media columnist and critic for the New York Times, to believe that “someday, I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming.”
Carr presumably knows whereof he speaks, and I’m content to regard the Internet as the best and brightest machine ever made by man, but nonetheless a machine with a tin ear and a wooden tongue. It is one thing to browse the Internet; it is another thing to write for it.
The author doesn’t speak to a fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords—insurance, Steve Jobs, Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony—but is neither willing nor able to wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.
The strength of language doesn’t consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. “Word work,” Toni Morrison said in Stockholm, “is sublime because it is generative,” its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer’s day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
We’re still playing with toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including “Money and Class in America”, “Theater of War”, “Gag Rule”, and, most recently, “Pretensions to Empire.” The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces “Means of Communication,” the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
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Copyright 2012 Lewis H. Lapham
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