Language of literature

To understand the relationship between technology and human creativity and language, we have to define what technology is “Each book is a tactic.”

— Walter Benjamin

Literature, or any artistic enterprise, is an engagement with the social life of its own times. Even science fiction set in the distant future and imaginary planets has to appeal to the readers in this world and in its own age. And both the author and the readers are only familiar with this world and responding to it. To understand the relationship between technology and human creativity and language, we have to define what technology is. There was a time when writing was a new technology. Human societies were moving from orality to visual representations of language in the form of scripts.

Hesiod, a Greek poet, was probably the first poet who imagined himself in the role of a poet as a distinct social role. Before him, poets used to improvise or recite and imagined themselves as rhapsodes: nomadic performers of epic tales who created, memorised and improvised according to the needs of the audience. The same poet could have eulogised the nobility in one performance and praised the plebes in another performance because there was no written record of past iterations of a work of literature. A poem was always a “work in progress”.

Plato’s objections to writing are famous now. In Phaedrus, Plato criticises writing in the same way some people objects to e-books now. For Plato, writing was injurious to memory and people were at the risk of becoming forgetful. Ironically, people remember Plato because he wrote down what Socrates spoke. Writing as a new technology has changed the world culture and now our collective memory about oral literature exists mostly through the medium of writing.

Now another era of unprecedented technological change is upon us. Our notions of time and space are in need of revisions because the internet time is here. In chat rooms of the world, people do not say, “I will talk to you at 4 pm” because the person on the other side may not be in the same time zone. Instead, they say, “I will talk to you in two hours.” And they are usually typing not talking. And this is just one example.

For Plato, writing was injurious to memory and people were at the risk of becoming forgetful. Ironically, people remember Plato because he wrote down what Socrates spoke. Another example is the major change in the notion of a book. A book is now defined as a computer document created by an author and then emailed to a publisher or an e-book distributor who then relays the book to all the connected devices demanding that book over the internet. The physical book is for the third world where charging the various e-book reading devices can still be a problem. Platonic lovers of books in their physical form are still around but google is hell-bent on digitising contents of all the public libraries of the world.

The question that people should ask is why a private company can digitise and capitalise on what was essentially built with taxpayers’ money?

If literature does not respond to these changes, it is not going to capture the psychological consequences of these transformations for those who will take e-culture for granted in another decade or so. And writers have done a very good job at reacting to every little change in society and recording their responses.

Let’s begin with Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel Less than Zero. It is a tale of a young man whose self does not have any impact on the world. The protagonist experiences moments of his own disappearance as huge billboards on traffic intersection are advertising exotic locations with slogans offering the chance to “disappear here”. This was the culmination of postmodern fiction. The modern self had obliterated itself in two world wars and the promise of the Western enlightenment had ended up in smoke and the decline of the West and the rise of the rest.

The digital age had started with another kind of war: the cold one. The Internet was developed as strategic depth by the scientists working for the US Department of Defense and was originally named the ARPAnet, or the network of the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was a way of creating sustainable flow of information in case of a Soviet nuclear attack and its decentralised nature was considered its resilience.

When all this transformed into what we now know as the Internet, it was still not considered a commercial venture but a system of communication where nerdy people got together. It was the commercialisation of the Internet that changed the way human beings interact with digital networks for communicating and buying and selling. The human self became just an IP address, a node in a vast array of machines and signals. “Disappear here” was an appropriate response by Bret Easton Ellis. In American Psycho, another novel by Ellis, the hero tries to kill almost every self that does not support the fictions neurotically maintained by the Western, white, and masculine self.

Literature in its latest iterations does not have any anxieties about the disappearing human self or real-conversations having been replaced by pixelated transactions in chat rooms. In Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao Lin, a Taiwanese-American novelist, has created characters that do not differentiate between online and offline conversation. The boundaries between fiction and reality are also gone.

The titular event in the narrative, the act of shoplifting and getting arrested for doing it, was an act by the author himself done in the real world and justified in an essay published online. The reportage was then turned into a novel, which is probably neither fiction nor real or it is both or it does not matter. It is a simulacrum of reality and imagination or it is a virtualisation of realities that were already virtual but never recognised as such. The Internet is the latest transformation in human culture and google has so far digitised only 30 million books out of the approximately 130 million total books produced by human beings. With all this information available to those who are computer literate, have electricity and the freedom to read what they desire, it is a good opportunity to become better informed but this freedom comes at the cost of giving one’s personal data for infinite retrieval and surveillance.

The ramifications of the Snowden saga have still not been dealt with in contemporary literature. George Orwell’s 1984, a novel from an offline era, seems to be more relevant than any other text. The reader has to choose between loneliness and simulated social networking. For others, it is just lonely people staring at bright, rectangular screens and sometimes calling them books and, at other, calling them a social life.

Published on January 05, 2014