The author doesn't speak to a fellow human being, whether a Spaniard, a Frenchman, or a German. He or she addresses an algorithm geared to accommodate keywords -- insurance, Steve Jobs, Muammar Qaddafi, mortgage, Casey Anthony -- but is neither willing nor able to wonder what the words might mean. It scans everything but hears nothing, as tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.
The strength of language doesn't consist in its capacity to pin things down or sort things out. "Word work," Toni Morrison said in Stockholm, "is sublime because it is generative," its felicity in its reach toward the ineffable. "We die," she said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." Shakespeare shaped the same thought as a sonnet, comparing his beloved to a summer's day, offering his rhymes as surety on the bond of immortality: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this and this gives life to thee."
Maybe our digital technology is still too new. Writing first appears on clay tablets around 3000 BC; it's another 3,300 years before mankind invents the codex; from the codex to moveable type, 1,150 years; from moveable type to the Internet, 532 years. Forty years haven't passed since the general introduction of the personal computer; the World Wide Web has only been in place for 20.
We're still playing with toys. The Internet is blessed with undoubtedly miraculous applications, but language is not yet one of them. Absent the force of the human imagination and its powers of expression, our machines cannot accelerate the hope of political and social change, which stems from language that induces a change of heart.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine , he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America , Theater of War , Gag Rule , and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Means of Communication," the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly .
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Copyright 2012 Lewis H. Lapham