Language Under Digital Conditions: Power and Action
The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 1
Welcome to another installment of The Convivial Society. It has been longer than usual since the last one, and many of you have come to the newsletter in recent weeks through the generous recommendations of other writers as you signed up for their work. So if you’re wondering what this is that has landed in your inbox, it is a newsletter about technology, culture, and the moral life in which I try to think carefully, and one hopes helpfully, about the state of our techno-social environment. I’d like to think that you’ll find The Convivial Society worth your time. If not, you can easily unsubscribe. If you do find it useful, though, please feel free to share the work with others and consider becoming a paid subscribers. Cheers!
Programming note: This newsletter almost always features stand-alone essays, but I’m deviating slightly from that norm in this installment. As I worked on this draft, I realized that it was becoming rather unwieldy. So, I’ve decided to split things up into a handful of installments gathered around the theme of language under digital conditions.
I’d like to talk about “free speech,” but it is impossible, or at least exceedingly difficult to do so.
Right now, you probably have two or three guesses as to what I might have in mind. Another reader may have two or three guesses of their own, but there’s a good chance that they will be quite different from yours. That much is to be expected; “free speech” has long been a contested term, although, of course, the form and terms of the debate have shifted over the years.
But the reason I think it is well nigh impossible to talk about “free speech,” except under very specific circumstances, has very little to do with the heated and acrimonious debates, past or present, about the nature and extent of “free speech.” The phrase “free speech” is not just contested in a challenging but familiar way, but seems somehow empty of meaning altogether, which seems like a different sort of problem. And “free speech” is, of course, just one such example. So my concerns are not about “free speech” in the conventional sense at all, they are about speech itself, and they arise from the sense that something of consequence is happening to ordinary language, the lifeblood of human thought and action, under digital conditions.
I hesitated to put the matter in those rather ominous terms. It seems foolish to suggest, for example, that language is breaking down. After all, here I am using language to communicate with you and, I trust, having at least some modest success in making myself understood. But I do think something is going on, and I want to explore in a bit more detail this sense that language has gotten somehow out of joint. If it helps, perhaps we might reframe these concerns as a question: What are the conditions under which language can properly function as the ground of meaning, communication, and action? And, then: To what degree do these conditions obtain in digitally mediated environments? I have in mind both the power of language as a tool of comprehension and as a tool of action—as a tool of ordering human experience and organizing human action.
Now, if I can count on your patience, I’d like to give this essay a double introduction and allow both of them to loosely frame what follows. So here’s another opening, quite literally, in the sense of opening up a second path through the tangle of issues related to speech, to language itself, under digital conditions.
In the most recent episode of his podcast, The Gray Area, Sean Illing interviewed Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet magazine. The focus of their conversation was an essay Newhouse wrote back in November, which argued that the most salient divide in American society was between those who believed that America’s institutions were irreparably broken and those who believed that they were fundamentally sound but in need of reform, repair, or renewal. She termed these two groups the brokenists and the status-quoists. Tablet is a Jewish publication, so the essay includes interesting reflections drawn from the tradition of Jewish thought and the experience of Jews in America. You can read the whole thing and listen to her conversation with Illing to decide what you think about this framing.
I think there’s something to it, partly because of how the history of human institutions and the history of technology are interwoven. Neil Postman put this as succinctly as possible in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):
Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis.
So, yes, it would make sense that the advent of digital media would precipitate a crisis of institutions and that this crisis would generate significant societal fault lines. Of course, there is more to say about why exactly, or how, new technologies challenge existing institutions. Three years ago, I made my own effort to map an analogous divide between what I called the Digital City and the Analog City. More recently, I attempted to make a narrower argument focused on the challenge to the myth of machine-like neutrality that undergirded modern institutions. With that myth dissolving under digital conditions, it’s not surprising that a divide of the sort that Newhouse described has appeared in American society.
In what follows, though, I want to take another angle on the same basic problem, one that considers, in an admittedly cursory and speculative fashion, the possibility that having built our political structures on the assumption that human experience and human society can be ordered by human language and speech, we may now be suffering through the discovery that the world we have built is no longer responsive to either.
In this first essay and the one that follows, I’ll consider how some mid-twentieth century thinkers conceived of the problem of language, politics, and technology. In subsequent installments, I plan to take up a related set of questions and themes: the paradoxes of language online, the relationship between silence and meaning and between metaphor and thought. I’m sure there may be some other detours along the way.
Language, Sense, and Action
The fear that human action and human language are parting ways has been expressed before. Notably, a number of mid-20th century writers took up the theme. Consider Hannah Arendt’s Prologue to The Human Condition first published in 1958. The Prologue is a brief but rewarding meditation on the challenges posed by mid-20th century developments in science and technology. The first fear Arendt considers at length is that “the ‘truths’ of the modern scientific worldview, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” In other words, Arendt feared that a gap had opened up between what science had come to know about the world and the capacity of human language to adequately express those truths.
This leads her to wonder whether “we, who are earthbound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.”
The sentiment, interestingly, is echoed in W.H. Auden’s poem, “Friday’s Child”:
The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alariming or unkind
But utterly banal.
Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.
In a line that seems even more striking today, Arendt went on to write that “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.”
Arendt also warns us against following the oft-repeated counsel “to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement.” She believed that if we were to do so, “we would in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful.” As she explains, this is because “the sciences today have been forced to adopt a ‘language’ of mathematical symbols which […] now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech.”
But why does this matter? The problem, as Arendt put it, is that “wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being.” In her view, “whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about.” While “truths beyond speech” may be important to a person considered individually, “men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.”
In short, the political community cannot exist without language. As she explains elsewhere, for Aristotle the human being is a “political animal” because we are, first, “a living being capable of speech.” Speech creates the possibility of a society ordered by a principle other than force or violence. Should speech no longer be able to sustain the political community or should human action reach beyond what can be adequately represented with human speech, then the consequences could be grave.
At the expense of belaboring the point needlessly, allow me to briefly mention George Steiner’s similar line of thought from his 1963 essay, “The Retreat of the Word.” Steiner’s concern is principally with the state of literature, but along the way he also argues that the startling advances of modern science depended on its turn to the “language” of advanced mathematics, and, as he puts it, “the history of that language is one of progressive untranslatability.”
He goes on to call this progressive untranslatability “a fact of tremendous implication.” “It has divided the experience and perception of reality into separate domains,” he writes. “The most decisive change in the tenor of Western intellectual life since the seventeenth century,” Steiner argues, “is the submission of successively larger areas of knowledge to the modes and proceedings of mathematics.”
And, to be clear, Steiner is rather hard on his fellow humanists on this point. According to Steiner, “Those of us who are compelled by our ignorance of exact science to imagine the universe through a veil of non-mathematical language inhabit an animate fiction.” (I think much depends on whether Steiner is right about this. I’m not sure that he is, but am less certain about how he might be wrong.)
Steiner goes on to detail how the language of mathematics gradually captured one field or discipline after another: history, economics, philosophy, and even strands of modern music and art. He then sums up his argument in this way:
Until the seventeenth century, the sphere of language encompassed nearly the whole of experience and reality; today it comprises a narrower domain. It no longer articulates, or is relevant to, all major modes of action, thought, and sensibility. Large areas of meaning and praxis now belong to such non-verbal languages as mathematics, symbolic logic, and formulas of chemical or electronic relation.”
“The world of words,” Steiner concludes, “has shrunk.”
Where do things stand sixty years later? Were these mid-20th century fears about the rupture between a scientific, which is to say mathematical, understanding of the world and ordinary language overstated? From one perspective, I suppose so. Political life went on, of course. But, upon closer examination, maybe not. Did political life go on as before, or is it possible to trace our present disaffections to this turn toward the inexpressible in our understanding of the world? Has there been since then a steady erosion of the space for political action grounded in speech? Does this parting of ways between ordinary language and understanding—perhaps dating back to the discovery of telescopic and microscopic reality, as Arendt suggests in The Human Condition—account, at least in part, for the evident and felt brokenness of our institutions and the alienated quality of human experience? In other words, if language has been the foundation of human culture and experience, are we now registering above ground, as it were, cracks that have long been winding their way through that foundation?
Perhaps we can tell the story this way: While Arendt and Steiner (among others) were largely correct about the shrinking sphere and power of language, it would be some time before ordinary citizens felt the consequences acutely. Already by the mid-twentieth century and certainly thereafter, ordinary citizens were all too familiar with the exasperating opaqueness and unresponsiveness of bureaucratic society and already experienced a vague discomfort with the scale and scope of modern technological systems. But it was not until the advent of algorithmic society that large swaths of everyday experience became similarly opaque and unresponsive to ordinary language. Now we are all increasingly confronted by the dynamics Arendt and Steiner described. The sources of our malaise might be many, but surely one of them is the apparent failure of our most basic tool for making sense, deriving meaning, and acting in the world.
It is not just that the language of the average citizen is no longer adequate to give an account of the natural world that accords with the esoteric realities discovered by modern science. Nor is it merely the case that we all now confront problems whose scale makes them resistant to human understanding and human action. It is that our lives are increasingly structured by systems and devices which operate according to mathematical, statistical, and algorithmic logic, a logic that often escapes the understanding not only of those whose lives are subject to the systems and devices but even that of those who create and deploy the systems and devices. And one suspects that these systems are resistant to political control not only because of the fecklessness of politicians or the corrupting influences of wealth but precisely because they themselves have become the true governing principle of modern society.
Thinking about large language models like GPT-3 from this perspective, it seems as if they represent a final triumph of mathematical representations over language. If writing amounted to, as Walter Ong once put it, the technologizing of the word (and print its mechanization), then large language models amount to the mathematization of the word. Time will tell what this will mean. I will venture no predictions. I will only say that for Arendt, speech was bound up with natality—the promise of new beginnings, the realm of actions which yield unpredictable consequences. To render speech the outcome of prediction seems to bind it up with mortality instead, with the expected end rather than the unexpected beginning.
According to Arendt, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of powerand final impotence.” She then goes on to issue this somber warning: “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
Word and deed have parted company, partly for the reasons Arendt described, but as the following installments will show, I think there’s more to the story of language under digital conditions than what this line of analysis offers us. But it is a start. And to be pointed in the direction of language, and its relation to thought, meaning, and action makes it a very good start. I do think it’s here that we will find the deep sources of many of our frustrations, but perhaps also the sources of a new beginning.
This is unlikely to be a coincidence. Auden read and admired The Human Condition.
Power here is the potential for action that emerges among people in their plurality. It can be activated by speech and generate action in the world. “While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
As I write this from my bed in the stroke ward of a very advanced hospital, I think your speculations might have gone too far, not because, as one might imagine, I think the math and science saved me, but because they didn’t.
Contemplating neuroplasticity, my work as a high school English teacher and the potential for my recovering my feet, my balance, and my life, I am sensing a sublime calculus in network math that neither Postman nor Arendt nor Steiner knew or considered.
I’ll have more to say about this later, but the gap you and they sense between speech and ineffable mathematics might be summarized as the gap between the simulated model and the lived experience.
And one of those models is the 20th century, distinctive mindset. Arendt’s distinction, for example, between public and private establishes a foundation for her ongoing argument in The Human Condition. But read the last 30 or 40 pages of that book with a literary ear, and you can hear her feeling loss. It’s downright poetic. Thus, too, Steiner.
Our new world is a networking world, one where mathematical models that operate in neural networks help to prepare us for the strokes to come: climate blasts of major seaports, solar flares, that knock out electrical grids, all kinds of losses of infrastructures and institutions that we created on the foundation of critical distinctions like “public and private.”
Those distinctions can be modeled so that we can reinvent them, and the institutions on which we built our way of being together.
Mathematical modeling, especially with networks and network math, helps us to prepare to heal. There is much more to say on this, and I understand and apologize for the abstraction of that position. But my literal physical position, flat on my back and served by the neural networks that allow me to dictate this post response into my phone, convince me that our artistic heritage (think, say, of Russian formalist Viktor Šklovsky, arguing that by making language strange, poetry helps us live again), including the flow or apparent flow of free speech, has much still to offer us as we render that flow in mathematical models.
We are seeing a convergence, not a loss.
Not arguments, just a few thoughts that occurred to me while reading this:
1) My experience of my own brain is that there is a lot happening in there that is also non-verbal and unseen, so I'm not quite sold on the idea that words deserve quite so much primacy. And between humans, too, there's many a slip. We were never communicating perfectly with words, even when that was all we had.
2) As a writer of fiction, I feel keenly aware of the limitations of words. There are ways I feel and experiences I've had that words are absolutely inadequate for. I would even say that the most important things (to me) are the hardest to convey in words. Language is a blunt instrument. I love it, and will keep whacking away with it, but there's a reason we need music and paintings and dance as well.
3) One of my favourite things is when I'm on one side of the kitchen table, writing or drawing, and my husband and son (a physicist and engineer, respectively) are on the other side of the table working calculus problems together. This is as cozy a father-son bonding moment as I have ever witnessed, as incomprehensible as their mouth-noises are to me. So I don't quite buy that the language of math is only ever cold and inhuman, not when I've seen humans working so warmly with it.
4) One of my favourite quotes about the inadequacy of language (and how we've got to keep trying anyway) is from Douglas Adams: "Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all."