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How the Internet Fails Us

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.

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 4:46 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.—Emperor Charles V

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."

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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.

Floating the Fiction of Democracy

In 1964 I was slow to take the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a medium that McLuhan had listed as endangered—writing, for The Saturday Evening Post, inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an effect, a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an attempt to tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children's blocks, and when offered the chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the referral to what I regarded as a course in remedial reading.

The judgment was poorly timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had gone the way of the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news, the distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were increasingly difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan meant by the phrase, "The medium is the message," when in the writing of a television history of America's foreign policy in the 20th century, I was allotted roughly 73 seconds in which to account for the origins of World War II, while at the same time providing a voiceover transition between newsreel footage of Jesse Owens running the 100-yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the Wehrmacht into Vienna in the spring of 1938.

McLuhan regarded the medium of television as better suited to the sale of a product than to the expression of a thought. The voice of the first-person singular becomes incorporated into the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom of wish and dream; the viewer's participation in the insistent and ever-present promise of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as "the huge educational enterprise that we call advertising." By which he didn't mean the education of a competently democratic citizenry—"Mosaic news is neither narrative, nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment"—but rather as "the gathering and processing of exploitable social data" by "Madison Avenue frogmen of the mind" intent on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and desire.

McLuhan died on New Year's Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World Wide Web, but his concerns over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in which it is the machine that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing) are consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual human expression to "a primitive, retrograde activity." Among the framers of the digital constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in the early programming of virtual reality.

In the same way that McLuhan in his more optimistic projections of the electronic future had envisioned unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state of freedom not unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too Lanier had entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book You Are Not a Gadget, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on the surface of the web is "more for machines than people"—machines that place advertising at the "center of the human universe…the only form of expression meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any other form of expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of meaninglessness."

The reduction of individual human expression to a "primitive, retrograde activity" accounts for the product currently being sold under the labels of "election" and "democracy." The candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate an opinion poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news media's expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of democracy—the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200 million in the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of 2008—reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.

Like the music in elevators, the machine-made news comes and goes on a reassuringly familiar loop, the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same commentaries, what was said last week certain to be said this week, next week, and then again six weeks from now, the sequence returning as surely as the sun, demanding little else from the would-be citizen except devout observance. French Novelist Albert Camus in the 1950s already had remanded the predicament to an aphorism: "A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers."

Ritual becomes the form of applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define as pattern recognition—Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is not a golf ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning's googling, an afternoon's shopping, an evening's tweeting constitutes the guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their own invention—money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl—the technology can be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch's phrase, as "the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it." Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super-PAC) the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling of things rather than from the making of them.

The Voice of Money Talking to Money

Never have so many labels come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and MSNBC, but also on the Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of "innovative delivery strategies" that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with "quicker access to valued customers."

Maybe I miss the "key performance indicators," but I don't know how a language meant to be disposable enriches anybody's life. I can understand why words construed as product placement serve the interest of the corporation or the state, but they don't "enhance" or "empower" people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression a voice, and therefore a life, that they can somehow recognize as their own.

The regime change implicit in the ascendant rule of signs funds the art of saying nothing. Meaning evaporates, the historical perspective loses its depth of field, the vocabulary contracts. George Orwell made the point in 1946, in his essay "Politics and the English Language." "The slovenliness of our language," he said, "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

Advertising isn't interested in political regeneration. The purpose is to nurture foolish thoughts, and the laziness of mind suckled at the silicone breasts of CBS and Disney counts as a consumer benefit. The postliterate sensibility is offended by anything that isn't television, views with suspicion the compound sentence, the subordinate clause, words of more than three syllables. The home and studio audiences become accustomed to hearing voices swept clean of improvised literary devices, downsized into data points, degraded into industrial-waste product.

Ambiguity doesn't sell the shoes. Neither does taking time to think, or allowing too long a pause between the subject and the predicate. In the synthetic America the Beautiful, everything good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right. The body politic divides into constituencies of one, separate states of wishful thinking receding from one another at the speed of light.

Every loss of language, whether among the northern Inuit or the natives of the Jersey Shore, the critic George Steiner writes down as "an impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche" comparable to the depletion of species in California and Ecuador. The abundance of many languages (as many as 68 of them in Mexico), together with the richness of their lexical and grammatical encoding (the many uses of the subjunctive among certain tribes in Africa) stores, as do the trees in Amazonia, a "boundless wealth of possibility" that cannot be replaced by the machinery of the global market.

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