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  • The Tyranny of the Detached Word

    This is Chapter 16 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    I care about the words I write, and that is where the danger begins. Just when I am most taken with their sound and rhythm, their logical articulation, their imagery and meaning -- then the risk is greatest. For words always come from the past, whether from the previous moment's thinking or the earliest genesis of the race. The word's greatest gift -- which is to preserve the thought and meanings that preceded us -- is also its greatest threat, for this enshrined life of the past easily tyrannizes the delicate tracings of fresh thinking.

    I'm sure most writers have had experiences like mine: I write a paragraph that "clicks," and then begin to feel pride in it. But as the larger text evolves, the "inspired" paragraph may no longer fit quite so well. Rather than throw out the valued words, however, I now seek to preserve them by wresting the context into a compatible shape.

    Or, what is worse, at every step I allow my thinking itself to be controlled by the direction of the preceding words, so that a train of thought is always rigidly determined by what has gone before. I live in the pleasure of -- and in obedience to -- the word of the past. In this way, I conspire against the eruption of new meaning, the unexpected shift of perspective, the subtle nuances that might require me to junk all that fine writing I've just produced. Words now disconnected from any current thinking -- dead words, alien words -- suborn my writing to their own purposes.

    We see something similar in group discussion. Over time, every group puts a distinctive spin upon its language, establishing god- and devil-terms, creating a rich background of word associations and, with its cognitive habits, gouging out familiar and comfortable ruts through the receptive terrain of meaning and inference. It is a useful exercise to observe how group discussions are governed by influences from the past. Once topic X or phrase Y comes up, does everyone seem to know instinctively where things are "supposed" to be headed?

    Word processing

    The computer as word processor strengthens the independent power of the words we have already produced. I sit, transfixed before a video screen, watching the cursor as it slides along and ejects one word after another -- my words -- almost as if it were acting under its own power. I easily find myself waiting half-consciously to see what words come out next. And they do come. When my thinking crystallizes so quickly and effortlessly into a finished, limiting structure of words, I am tempted to abandon further thinking prematurely, deferring to a kind of automatic thinking encouraged by an existing, visible word-structure that wants nothing more than to extend itself in a too-obvious, shallowly consistent, or unconscious manner. Then I no longer summon my words; they summon me.

    Even the word-processing capabilities that might favor my more active involvement all too readily serve other ends. For example, the ease and rapidity with which I can cut and paste text enables my hands to keep up more closely with my mind, but also encourages me to reduce my thinking to the relatively mechanical manipulation of the words I see in front of me. To edit a text, then, is merely to rearrange symbols. Existing symbols and their "self-evident" relations -- not the thinking that makes symbols -- become almost everything.

    Of course, no two people work in just the same way, and temptations vary. On my part, I had, until recently, thought myself relatively immune to these coercions, for I tend to linger over a paragraph, continually revising it until I am satisfied. But now I recognize how "broken up" and fragmented this process has been. I play with my verbal constructions piece by piece, shuffling words and matching incomplete grammatical forms until the whole finally comes together and seems right. My computer readily abets such a disjointed approach.

    This working from the part to the whole substitutes for a sustained and intense thinking that grasps the whole before struggling to articulate it in a particular manner. I try to build a whole from parts rather than allow the parts to be determined by the whole. But this is precisely to give the already achieved and incompletely vested word veto power over my thinking.

    Often, for example, I will type the first phrase of my next sentence without having any idea how that sentence will end -- or even what it will say. Clearly, then, this opening phrase is determined more by the "natural flow" of the preceding words than by the integral requirements of my current thinking -- which I haven't thought yet! And now what I will think is substantially constrained by the words I have already written. I may indeed work upon this process until the results seem fully satisfactory. But this domination of the word and fragmentation of my thinking -- to one degree or another inescapable with or without a computer -- is exactly what I need to work against if I would realize thinking's highest potential.

    Thinking and physical activity

    I have just recently been trying to write some of my briefer texts by hand, away from the computer. But I find within myself a surprising resistance to the experiment, even as another part of me senses its healthiness. My continual urge is to abandon the difficult effort to think through the matter at hand, and revert instead to the muscular action of typing. It feels like this would be to get on more quickly with the job.

    But, of course, this is not true. If anything, there is a natural antagonism between thinking and physical activity. We tend to purchase our thoughts at the expense of activity. Vigorous activity -- culminating in "fight or flight" at the extreme -- throws us into instinctive, automatic behavior. The natural pose of intense, concentrated thinking, on the other hand, is found in a body held alertly still -- almost turned in on itself (Rodin's sculpture has become a stereotypical image of this) -- or else in gentle, rhythmical activity that calms the mind.

    It is easy to observe how, as an important thought begins to take hold of us, we often pause for a moment, stopping whatever we were doing. It is as if the energies that might have gone into physical movement are diverted toward the emerging thought.

    Original thinking is always difficult; it requires a discipline of will to quiet the body and summon the powers of attention necessary for cognitive exploration. It is much easier to grasp at the thoughts that "come naturally," mediated in less than full consciousness by physical activity. The computer, as we have seen, cooperates with us in this.

    Words given by eye, ear, and hand

    To see my own words visibly forming even before my thinking has consummated its creative embrace of the truth is to threaten with abortion the fruit of that union. For, of all our senses, the eye helps us most to freeze the world into finished "things." These things easily become "mere givens" due to the eyes' passivity: we do not feel or consciously participate in the touch of the light upon the sense organs. And so the visible words I type onto the screen tend all the more to penetrate me with established meanings, whereas any genuine thinking I am engaged in must work in the opposite direction, struggling through to the right meanings and even finding a way to invest its words with new meaning. To be fully conscious is to be master of one's words, not their pawn.

    The word ringing in my ears -- whether spoken by myself or others -- is not quite so easily frozen; its "ringing" is not only the aural shuddering of its outer body, but also an inner resonance of meaning not yet reduced to a single, mathematically pure tone. To hear a word -- this was true, at least, until the advent of recorded speech -- was to hold it in a quivering, semantic balance while one read inflection and facial expression, timbre and gesture, rhythm and breathing -- and through all these, the intention of a Self. We knew instinctively the multivalence of all meaning.

    So, also, the word I write with my own hand may well correspond to a thought more rounded and fully gestated, for the difficulty of editing words once committed to paper requires a more careful and complete inner activity to precede the outer act of writing. And somehow the "analog" motions of writing make the words more intimately and expressively my own than the efficient, drumlike repetition of nearly identical keystrokes. It is not at all the same experience to write (or speak) the words "ugly" and "fair," whereas little difference can be found in typing them.

    Such matters become insignificant only when one forgets that expression -- in matters great and small -- is what distinguishes and shapes all human life for good and ill. Nothing is fully human that is not wordlike, and every word we express, whether through speech or gesture or coherent pattern of action, either augments or diminishes our life. If the stage actor must be aware of the significance borne by every minutest detail of movement or speech, then we who "act" our own lives should not forget the same truth.

    From words to information

    The computer is becoming ever more sophisticated in its drive to detach the word from thinking. Outliners mechanically reshuffle for us whatever words already happen to be there, never tiring of their labor, and minimizing the requirement for us to think our way through to the "best words in the best order." When a machine does the shuffling, our subdued attention need only recognize when something reasonable has "clicked into place."

    More aggressively, new, experimental software actually guides our writing by continually offering up words and phrases to extend the last thing we typed. This generosity is made possible by an analysis of our previous patterns of use. (One hopes we really were thinking back then .... ) But the analysis works only upon the external form of our words, not their shades of meaning; it trains us in the repetition of familiar forms that do our "thinking" for us.

    Reflecting afterward upon a friend's gesture or word, I may suddenly realize with a jolt: "Oh, so that's what he meant!" I finally see through a certain surface meaning with which previously I may have been content, and thereby grasp a meaning that was not at all evident before. Something like this seeing through is required in every apprehension of new meaning.

    But seeing through is exactly what the computer's active intelligence cannot do. The information processor demands text in which outer form and intended meaning are as predictable as possible. /1/ The unprecedented use of a word, the unexpected metaphor, may lay bare for the first time a sublime truth -- but it will only cause the information processor to stumble. For the information processor classifies, stores, links, and searches text based solely on surface appearance -- the "shape" of the words -- and is programmed on the assumption that these shapes can be mapped to a set of preestablished meanings.

    Only as our language approaches perfect formality (exemplified by pure logic or mathematics) does the form of a text become an absolutely reliable key to its meaning. Unfortunately, however, this perfection is achieved precisely because the meaning has finally disappeared altogether -- a formal language is all form and no content. It waits to be applied to something -- but once it is applied it is no longer formal, and no longer so easily processed by a computer.

    Where is the thinking self ?

    In general, the more abstract and empty (that is, formal) our thought and language become, the easier it is for us to sound off in superficially cogent verbal emptiness -- and the easier it is for a computer to manipulate the text. The thinking self disappears behind a cloud of words, and is carried along passively by the words themselves in conventional combinations -- the subconscious syntax of one's cultural milieu, mechanically executed, and therefore mechanically readable.

    This is not surprising when you consider that the programming languages specifying what a computer can do are themselves formal; by design they exhibit no meaning except what is on the surface, where the only "meaning" is the external form. That is why the computer can read and compile them without ambiguity. It will not find itself betrayed by original and unpredictable meanings shining through the words. There is no danger that a metaphorical do, begin, or continue will slip into the program's stream of instructions, pregnant with new and unanticipated meaning.

    Many researchers in cognitive science think they spy the essence of intelligence in the formal shuffling of symbols. They have become so used to the detached word that they find it natural to set words in motion and then to take the result as thinking itself. The separation of the word from thinking becomes final, with the now-mummified life of the word substituting for thinking. No wonder cognitive scientists spend so much time grappling with the question whether meaning "means" anything at all.

    Word and image

    It is clear enough that computers have other potentials for the human speaker beside those mentioned here. What the screen and keyboard elicit from me will not be what they elicit from everyone else. But one notes with a touch of anxiety how difficult it may be to resist the pull of the computer away from active thinking and toward mere association, convention, and formal abstraction. One's fears only increase upon seeing how naturally and harmoniously the computer and television appear to have conspired. Sven Birkerts, who teaches writing to freshmen at Harvard, tells how
    I read through their first papers -- so neatly word- processed, so proudly titled with the bold-faced curlicues that the technology makes possible -- and my heart sinks. The writing is almost always flat, monotonous, built up of simple units. Immigrant prose. But no, immigrant prose, clumsy though it may be, is often alert to the textures and imagistic possibilities of the language. This writing is bland and slippery, unpressurized by mind. It shows, if anything, the influence of rhetoric and televised banality. The prose has little or no musicality and lacks any depth of field; it is casually associative in movement, syntactically inert, and barren of interesting reference. Complexity is nonexistent. /2/

    Ironically, technology that was supposed to liberate us from the "tyranny of linear, rationally structured words" in favor of image, intuition, and pattern, is guaranteeing that whatever words remain are as linear and, in a superficial sort of way, as rationally structured as possible. After all, the essence of linearity is not that words should be stuck in a fixed order, but rather that their meanings should be stuck, so that all ordering possibilities are precisely defined and mechanically executable from the start. This is exactly what the programmable and information-processing computer asks of us. We must leave our words alone -- sleeping -- and may bestow no imaginative kiss upon their inert forms, lest they waken and dance free of the predictable structures in which the machine has snared them.

    But debase the word and you have debased the image as well, for the image only "speaks" through its word-nature. What is becoming of this nature is evident enough in the prevailing conviction that it is more important for images to make an impact than to possess meaning. "If you catch people's attention, at least you have a chance to say something meaningful. Fail to catch their attention, and you lose your opportunity." And so the image, too, becomes in its own way a matter of calculation, influencing us from without rather than coming alive as new revelation within.

    How many images assaulting us today are intended to reveal a more exalted truth -- to lead upward to comprehension -- and how many instead lead downward to instinct and mechanism, where "intuition" degenerates into the sort of gut feeling that coerces our buying choices, and where the kind of distracting, pleasurable sensations one feeds on at the cinema are all we can hope for?

    * * * * * * *

    Yet, in the end, the computer performs an invaluable service for us. In displaying the detached word and bringing it into a kind of lifelike motion, the information machine challenges us to discover within ourselves the place of mastery over words. What are the sources of our meanings, and how can we consciously draw upon those sources to shape a technology that, unguarded, would destroy meaning (and therefore also destroy the world)?

    The word's dreary passage through the information machine may enable us to recognize the dessication of meaning, and the mechanization of thinking, to which we ourselves are liable. It is we who have invested the machine with its computational prowess, which we skillfully abstracted from our own patterns of thought. Now we must choose: to submit our future to these automated abstractions, or else to exercise our own thinking capacities in a way that threatens to disfranchise the highly capable devices sitting on our desks.

    But the choice need not be posed quite so grandly. Everything hinges on how I receive and work with those "inspired" words on my screen, staring at me from out of the past.


    1. I am not speaking here of the information processor's passive reception of words typed by the user, but rather of its abilities to "read," "understand," and "intelligently manipulate" text. Such abilities, currently under intense development, will become increasingly central to the computer's role in society.

    2. Birkerts, 1992.

    Steve Talbott :: The Future Does Not Compute, Chapter 16

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