Only yesterday, I wrote about the shortcomings of technological communication systems. They may increase the number of links among people dramatically, but can only diminish the quality and authenticity of what passes over the links.
This morning I read an essay (registration required) by Tony Judt, entitled “Words” in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. While I will comment on a relevant part of the essay in a few moments, I must first note its poignancy. Judt, writing on the critical role words play in expressing our selves and our thoughts, has become increasingly disabled by a neurological disease, and is no longer able to express himself verbally in the way he writes about.
I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. . . No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. . . . If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.
I know it is unseemly practice to crib too much from others when blogging, but today I will simply quote a few lines from Judt’s essay as there is no way my words are up to the task.
The main thrust of the essay is the importance of “articulacy, the way words are used, in public life.
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.
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…”).
Judt eloquently refutes the conceit in Wright’s column that the “single brain” evolving from burgeoning global networks will allow people to act together to counteract the natural tendency toward chaos in the world. If the medium is truly to become the message without regard to the words, no one will know what the message means and, then, what to do. Judt (and I) would agree with Wright that public utterances are critical to coordinated societal action, but without some conventions about what the words mean, the subsequent action would only increase the potential for chaos, not decrease it.