Meanland—Digital Dialects and Class

This post was originally published on the Meanland blog on November 19 2012

The common denominator in my two Meanland posts so far has mainly been my complaining about authors complaining about new media. In my first post, I took on Jonathan Franzen’s mouthing off about Twitter. In my second, I delved deep into Don DeLillo’s fear of email. My routine preparation for writing a Meanland post basically involves me asking ‘what old white man has said something silly about the internet, now?’ and really just taking it from there.

It’s satisfying, and, I think, broadly correct, to designate the kind of pessimistic, dismissive attitude these authors have to new media technologies as a generational thing. Epochal, society-changing technology shifts have always, and will always, leave some people behind—often and inevitably the mature and settled. As it turned out, of course, Franzen and DeLillo were saying something just a little bit sensible about the way these technologies have the potential to reshape society and the individual. It’s just fun to take exception to their attitude.

But anyway, when I canvassed around for Meanland material for this post, I was reminded of another outburst made by a well-regarded contemporary author, Zadie Smith, writing in the New York Review of Books on the then recent release of The Social Network specifically, and the Facebook phenomenon generally. Smith is neither old, especially, not male, but her comments have, if anything, an even stronger whiff of the elite and classist about them.

Smith writes about some of the same issues I looked at last time; namely, Jaron Lanier, and his arguments that the architecture of certain digital technologies have the effect of ‘locking us in’, or structuring and delimiting the possibilities for personhood in a digital space. Smith calls the new breed of people inhabiting these digital spaces ‘Person 2.0’, and worries that, with her disinterest in adapting her own personhood to these new forms, she is ‘stuck at Person 1.0’. Except, as she admits, it’s not quite her own disinterest that stops her from adapting, its her own discomfort; not with the technologies themselves, necessarily, but with the 2.0 people.

She writes:

‘I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX.

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?’

Alexis Madrigal, in a response to Smith’s piece written for The Atlantic, rightfully notes that there is an ‘aesthetic revulsion’ at the heart of her, and other authors’, response to digital technologies:

‘so much bad writing, so many misspellings, so much butchered language and LOLs. The lack of proper punctuation! The stupid exclamation points!!!! There is nothing literary about the simple communications between most people on Facebook or Twitter.’

Which is an idea no less interesting for being simple; that it’s the sheer un-literary-ness of digital communication that is the immediate problem authors like Smith and Franzen have with digital technologies, not their putative effects on the individual and society. Or perhaps they feel that the un-literary forms found in digital communications reveal, and fortify as they reveal, society’s underclass.

Modes of speech and dialects are always at the core of the way a class defines itself. David Foster Wallace wrote a typically sensitive analysis of this very thing, in his article about the usage wars for Harper’s Magazine. In ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage’, Wallace gives an anecdote about the speech he used to give to those of his English students who, for reasons of class, or race, or what-have-you, had yet been unable to apply themselves to the forms of standard written English. As Wallace admits, the arguments in favor of proper English usage are ‘baldly elitist’. Standard written English was:

‘invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as “Standard” by same.. (it is) the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity.’

But, as Wallace tells his students, it is necessary to learn and understand the rules of SWE to be heard in society. SWE is ‘the dialect our country uses to talk to itself’.

It makes some sense that it would be authors, especially, who would see in the shifting of dialects and modes of speech represented by Twitter, and Facebook—and the ‘lols’ and ‘omgs’, and ‘rofls’—a real threat to their livelihoods. I wonder if experienced and educated authors worldwide trembled in fear, a little, when they heard that a Twitter feed would be published as a book (Justin Halpern’s awful Sh*t My Dad Says). I wonder what they make of the Japanese phenomenon of the cell phone novel. When one’s vocation is premised on the standards of written English (or any language), no doubt one is especially sensitive to changes to that standard. If lolspeak becomes our lingua franca something fundamental about our society’s arrangements of class and wealth and privilege will have changed.

Meanland—Too Much Free Press?

This was originally published on the Meanland blog, on April 30 2012

Speculating on the changes that the Digital Age will wreak on our culture seems to be an international pastime these days. Jonathan Franzen, celebrated novelist and American Writer du jour, keeps popping up in the news, loudly proclaiming the various deleterious effects that Twitter/Facebook/eBooks will have on Democracy/The Future/Our Children. (I wrote about some of his remarks earlier for Meanjin)

I find this kind of prognosticating extremely frustrating, grounded, as it usually is, in misunderstanding of the nature of new technologies on the part of white men too old to adapt to them. Franzen just doesn’t seem to get Facebook, or Twitter, and that’s okay. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get Facebook either, and he wrote a movie about it.

Annoying as I find this gainsaying, I am unable to stop myself from indulging in it as well. I am incapable of convincing myself of why I think Franzen is wrong, without also thinking about the various ways in which he and thinkers like him are maybe a little bit right. Lately I’ve been chewing on a particular idea of how our culture might be affected by the Digital Age. I’ve been thinking about how not just the nature of new publishing technologies, but the sheer number of new platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and all the various blogging websites, could impact on how the political discourse of our society is conducted.

We take it for granted that Western culture is grounded in the free spread of information. It’s not for nothing that the invention of movable type with the Gutenberg Press, and the consequent explosion in literacy levels, is credited with being a foundation stone in Western democracy. Our society is surely premised on the public being conscious and aware of the issues that affect their state, and is thus premised on the ability of the publishing industry, and publishing technology, to distribute that information. Hence the great rhetorical emphasis placed by politicians, pundits, and activists on freedom of the press.

But I wonder now whether the traditional operations of Western democracy are founded on there being an equilibrium in the levels of information being distributed. Or, in other words, is there such a thing as too much free press? Is it possible to have a citizenship overstimulated by information, saturated to excess by a panoply of voices, opinions, and publications of varying levels of respectability and value?

The newspaper industry is probably the most obvious face of this issue today. David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire and an ex-reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has suggested that the death of newspapers also means the death of a certain kind of reporting, a loss in the quality of publicly distributed information.. High-end reporting, as he puts it, is a profession requiring extensive time commitment and expertise on the part of well-trained practitioners; a kind of reporting, that is, which will be lost in the age of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news stories broken via Twitter or YouTube. As he says, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”

Huffington Post, the new titan of American news websites, is indeed the lightning rod for everything that is different, or wrong, about contemporary journalism. It is notable for two things. The first is that much of its content is generated not by experienced, well-paid journalists, but by unpaid citizen bloggers or celebrities. So instead of getting Bob Woodward on the issues of the day, you get Alec Baldwin. The second is that its profitability as a business is not tied to the quality of its journalism, but to its mastery of Search Engine Optimisation. By publishing huge amounts of pieces, often with trivial content but containing key words or issues, the Post ensures that it remains high on the list of Google’s search results, and therefore that its page views and corresponding ad revenue remain high as well.

In this respect the Huffington Post is emblematic of the worst fears about how the internet will change media and communication. Quantity of information over quality, and the value of information itself replaced by the value of content; trivial, empty, and useful only for its own self-perpetuation.

(Nevertheless, the Huffington Post does get kind of a bad rap. While newspapers are busy laying people off, the Post has been hiring hundreds of journalists on staff, and, in fact, has just won a Pulitzer Prize.)

The obvious political consequences of the changing distribution of information have already been seen worldwide, in the Arab Spring, Iran’s Green Revolution, and in the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements in the West. All of these protests are attributable, in some sense, to the way that new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have afforded new possibilities for the transmission of information between disparate groups, and the building of new social networks and connections. All these movements illustrate, in one way or another, that the proliferation of new publishing platforms can bring about a change in the character of political discourse within a society, and, in some cases, a change in the political makeup of the society itself.

It is the combination of these two factors, the change in the standard and character of information being distributed, and the change in the nature of the networks in which it is distributed, that interests me. Together, I wonder if they herald a fundamental shift in the way our society exists in discourse with itself.

Western commentators were often eager to proclaim that the Arab Spring was proof positive that freedom of press breeds an increase in democracy, but we may be overlooking the effect that these new freedoms are also inflicting on our own democracies. Take, for instance, the way that the Tea Party was able to thoroughly dominate the political discourse during the 2006 midterm elections in the US, and so contribute to the way that country’s political dialogue is veering inexorably to the right.

Western democracy, rightly or not, seems to exist on a binary system, with two major parties for left and right, and various subsidiary parties on either side. This is, to a certain extent, reinforced and perpetuated by the distribution of information through media publications, with newspapers and their parent corporations often characterised by their association with a particular side; think of Rupert Murdoch’s supposedly right-wing Newscorp, or The Huffington Post’s own left-wing slant.

On the one hand, more publishing platforms could mean more variety in political opinion, more voice for previously marginalised positions. But when this is combined with a new paradigm of information that prizes content and quantity over insight, I see a possibility for political deadlock: a society confusing itself, and in the process degrading the semblance of consensus upon which democratic action is founded, and letting specialised interests imbalance the discussion.

There may be nothing new about any of this. After all, publishing platforms have always been available to the determined; even if it was merely vanity press, or a locally distributed ‘zine or pamphlet. And its probably a fallacy to declare that the state of contemporary discourse is any more vacuous than it has ever been; hindsight tends to blind the eye. (It would certainly be a mistake to assume that newspaper reporting two-hundred years ago was in any way superior in expertise and intent than it is today.) But the internet could be the tool that metastasizes the situation, and exposes the fault-lines that have lain beneath our culture all along.