compassionate critique, anonymous inquiry, quantum lulzology
As an extremely active, engaged Internet user for the last fifteen years, my friends at the time and I began to immerse ourselves in the burgeoning cybercultural economy in our late adolescence through online gaming communities. Team-based multiplayer games such as Quake 3, Half-Life and Unreal Tournament were exciting and mesmerizing to us due to their imaginative visuals and futuristic storylines, competitive and interactive game-play dynamics and reliance on group interactivity and strategization. Although free time to play video games online diminished as I grew older, the time I spent online interacting with anonymous data and users has not. This is not something to be overlooked, and my situation is common to many people my age or younger in postindustrial societies around the world. As a mode of technological communication, the Internet has exploded in popularity and use in populations of similar societies across the globe since its inception and popularization less than thirty years ago. The amount of time one spends ‘online’ (engaged in cybertextual communication via desktop, laptop, tablet or phone) has quickly become a prominent activity in waking life. For coming generations, this essentially anonymous mode of communication will become the common operating assumption for users online or away from keyboard. This is a significant trend because communication in whatever mode always necessitates thought. The accumulation of growing populations thinking more frequently for more of their waking lives means that the potential possibilities for innovation, creativity, problem solving and art (or any products of unique thought) are also expanding to historically unprecedented intensities.
Communication has always been an inherently inchoate concept. As John Durham Peters traces in ‘Communication: History of the Idea,’ academia’s understanding of the theory and practice of what communication means and is, is neither absolutely coherent, nor specific. The concept evolves from the Latin root communis meaning common or public. Communis is also linked to munus, meaning duty or gift and is related to the terms: common, immune, mad, mean, meaning, municipal and mutual (689). Various texts from antiquity through to the modern era have used the word ‘communication’ to refer to the symbolic exchange of individuals private abstractions mediated through public representations yielding a shared understanding through the medium of language. Historically (and primarily), linguistic communication as a practice occurred in the medium of oral speech and entailed the presence of an orator and interlocutor for linear expression, perception and reception to occur. With the development of technologies like manuscript and the printing press (manual, mechanical), the telegraph and telephone (electrical), and significantly the Internet (digital), the speed of communication has steadily increased while the richness and fecundity of primary oral communication has been mostly ignored. Writing was the first mode of representing thought in material form through language, print sped abstraction by another order of experience and importantly removed communication’s immediacy from the direct, face-to-face expression of thought via the emergence of authors, texts and readers.
As a sign in the modern era, the word communication evolved a locus of significations orbiting around this notion of a common exchange between heterogeneous interlocutors in the medium of language (writing or speech). David Hume used the word to describe the physical motion of bodies in space and the metaphysical play of emotion within and among feeling bodies (690). In 1690, John Locke’s Essay concerning human understanding describes communication in language as “the practice by which two or more minds shared ‘ideas’ via words” (690). In philosophic discourse of the Enlightenment era, the possibilities of communication as a “shared mental space” allowed the medium of language to function as a permeable membrane or medium, which individuals used to share their unique understandings through specifically encoded signs and “publish the private wealth locked inside inner experience” for the literate world to read, interpret understand and engage each other (690).
Walter Ong’s 1982 watershed book Orality and Literacy grapples with the historical evolution of practical communication in relation to thought from primary oral cultures that possessed no knowledge of writing, to literate cultures like ours that take writing for granted. Ong shows how “thought and its verbal expression in oral cultures” differs from and simultaneously impacts literate cultures first through technology (first through writing and then again through print). Due to the historical moment of its publication, Ong’s research only briefly touches on the impact of computers on communication. Ong’s nonetheless thorough examination is framed diachronically and synchronically and follows linguistics progenitor Ferdinand de Saussure’s work which shows that “the primacy of oral speech, underpins all verbal communication” and is intimately related to our ability to think, perceive and experience the world (5). The primacy of communication as founded in orality is a powerful clue to understanding phenomena we have come to take for granted over time and the key to understanding the strange and incredible changes in communication and thought postindustrial societies are currently experiencing.
Before the first technology to extend our ability to exteriorize thought and expression in language had been developed, communication existed in a state of primary orality. In these early oral cultures words were invisible, intangible occurrences or events conveyed in sound, rather than material things inscribed and viewed on a page, skin or stone. Ong situates the power of oral-aural communication in the ephemerality of verbal sounds ability to instantaneously share distinct thoughts through language, convey information and affect agency in others. Words were also used to name objects and give those with command over vast stores of memorized names the ability to better understand complex relationships, develop and evolve intellectual knowledge: “In an oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression but also thought processes” (33). Memory, mnemonics and formulas were crucial in cultures with no means for storing thoughts outside their minds. What makes a person’s intelligence is the ability to quickly and easily recall information from past experience. Before the invention of writing, history only existed insofar as it could be recited from memory generation to generation, and even then, the authenticity of said knowledge was always open to interpretation and question.
This strain on and dependence of the use of memory required oral cultures to use speech efficiently and effectively in order to remember and learn new things over time. Reliance on speech as the only mode of communication also necessitates the presence of a society (or at least one other listener) to hear an utterance, repeat and/or respond. Use of mnemonic devices to retain the fecundity of complex information enabled thought to become intertwined with memory systems by using “heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, [and] in standard thematic settings” (think of the litanies of lineages constantly described in Homer’s work) (34). These early formulae were deeply ingrained in oral cultures in order for the transmission of knowledge and experience to be inherited across generations. Since the earliest communicative societies then, the way words are used and the possibilities of thought and expression have been codetermined by the predominant mode of communication available at the time.
With the emergence of chirographic technology (writing) around 3500 BC, cultures eventually experienced a surge in awareness and increased functional intelligibility of the world and themselves through literacy. Chirographic communication facilitated a fundamental reorganization of thought, culture and awareness that still resonates in societies today, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (77). But how exactly does the way a literate mind think, differ from the minds of those early cultures of primary orality? With the creation of the text came an extra-temporal awareness of history the could be accessed and utilized by authors and readers through the power and authority of material words and text. Ong equates the circulation of texts in cultures and societies with the proliferation of context-free language or autonomous discourse “which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author” (77). Unlike the use of words in oral cultures whose existence and power was amplified by the scarce, limited nature of the medium of sound, in early literate cultures the written word possessed a seemingly unlimited power and attracted much attention (32). This diffusion of responsibility between utterer and utterance through the medium of the written manuscript acts as leverage between text and author, voice and thought and endows a tone of impersonal, unquestionable authority to the disembodied written words by virtue of the material fact that inscriptions cannot be questioned and say the same thing for as long they exist (which is considerably longer than a human’s lifespan).
An (in)formative examination of the hazards of written communication can be found in Plato’s Phaedrus. Throughout his analysis, Ong continues to remind us of the parallels between Plato’s four-point argument and contemporary (circa 1982) critique’s of computing technology, this comparison turns out to be far more profitable than Ong could have imagined as will be shown shortly. By ignoring the substantive content of Plato’s arguments for a moment and focusing instead on their tone a distinct attitude can be found permeating the dialogue. This simultaneous acknowledgement and disregard can be accomplished by reading the source material and Ong’s analysis multiple times and then focusing primarily on Ong’s interpretations to take advantage of his considerable learning and experience with the nuances of Plato’s text and which are most interesting. Many forms of fear are expressed in the Platonic dialogue in relation to writing including: alienation (fearing the loss or isolation from self and/or society), dehumanization (a loss of ‘humanity’) due to writing’s separation of thought from expression; aporia and/or reduction of one’s ability or will to process complex information and think for oneself; unacknowledgability– a lack of one’s expression being recognized by others (fear of a breakdown of dialogic communication), and finally exposure of vulnerability or weakness to others who communicate thoughts through, natural or “real speech” which has “always exist[ed] essentially in a context of give-and-take between real persons” (78).
Throughout Plato’s attack on writing, his paradoxical perspective of the relation between writing and thought is the knot, which binds (and blinds) all other threads of experience, understanding and expression (regardless of the discourse or discipline of those who’ve followed) in his wake. Plato’s perspective and attitude throughout his screed against writing is indeed logically persuasive, but ultimately undermined by the medium in which it is expressed. As Ong points out, Plato’s complex argument (or maybe just ‘complex’) is only able to exist because it was written down. Ironically (or not) as an author, Plato himself is hidden behind Socrates the man, whom the argument is historically attributed to, Socrates the character who actually utters the words and by Phaedrus, who functions as the blank slate to be written on- but the problem is people are not blank slates. The only way Plato is able to philosophize in writing is because he was able to listen to others (like Socrates) philosophize before him in speech. So it seems then that the same medium of writing that allows Plato to construct his complex, persuasive logical argument against the technologization of the word is always already limited by the binary oppositional linearity of his own thought process predicated and made possible by the medium he attacks. All this irony functions as a powerful conduit for the transmission of philosophical knowledge on the one hand and as a satiating balm for the violent fearful tone woven throughout the common horizon that exists between characters, author and reader. It is this common horizon or bubble that effectively (unknowingly) trapps all three parties in his their self-reinforced filter bubble because when exclusively relied on, “intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized’, that is, part of its own reflexive process” (79-80)
Plato’s perspective is an important primary instance of the historical tendency for literate people to internalize communication technologies and their limits, in the same way that oral communication was once solely articulated from the fleeting interiority of our minds and articulated exclusively through speech. This isolated, fixed perspective and tone expressed by Plato has become the foundation for the majority of Western thought and literate cultures since. His characteristic blindness became exacerbated with the introduction of the printing press. Without the immediacy and ephemerality of orality, literate cultures began to assume the internal, fixed perspective of print as essential, while forgetting, (or never being able to realize like Plato) that such a perspective is contingent on the structure and in mode which it is expressed– and writing is a wholly silent mode of communication. The effect of this silent, automatic internalization of tacit limits hidden in a field of semantic information in given text is that while literate cultures gained a wealth of powerful knowledge and understanding over time, they suffered a tacit loss of the ability to express due to the obfuscation and oblivion to the analog spectrum of possible semantic nuance concerned with painful or violent fears associated with a real loss of individual freedoms, agency and volition- in service of the more glaringly obvious brute force rational, or logical (and digitally expressible) semantic data and linear modes of expression. The technology of writing (and by hyperextension print) did everything Plato feared it would, but worse, due to our own reflexive tendency to internalize that which we would rather not acknowledge, it did so under the mystifying veil of anonymity– in plain sight.
This predominant, deferred and superficial mode of thought and expression has been discussed and interrogated at length by countless individuals since Plato’s time, each learning from the expressions of the last, but all learning from each encounter within the confines of the limited, linear perspective of print. Any other mode of learning, thought or expression has been so far, inconceivable until the proliferation of the Internet and the development of cybertext. As such, linear thought and perspective have historically dominated and limited the possibility of semantic interpretation (or expression) of even the most rigorously argued text to rehashing the same anonymous semantic violence that eluded Plato, (albeit in a myriad of different contexts, situations, orientations and discourses). All the while, the obvious meaning of any linear, print perspective utterance has remained the focus, while the attitudes, tones and assumptions contingent and associated with the print perspective (which have also been transmitted and inherited) have remained diffracted amid the vast fields of semantic nuance present in any printed text. Though this nuance has remained out of focus and inverted, through the medium of cybertext, it is now becoming possible to examine, but a new mode of existence is required to parse such anonymous data. By standing on the shoulders of the first modern cryptographer Leon Battista Alberti, I will argue that the mechanics of visual perception and perspective which he applied to merge the mediums of print and painting may be once again extended and used to interrogate this new sort of semantic nuance omnipresent to users in the anonymous mode.
As the most pervasive and dominant medium used to express thought since the invention of the Gutenberg press, Fredrich Kittler traces the evolution of print’s “power to facilitate its own technological supersession,” and as a powerful mode of communication (discursive, semantic, political, economic) derived from the open circulation of printed information and from the “technologically sophisticated media link that joined these words to printed images” (Kittler 37). Johannes Gutenberg’s significant contribution to the technological reproducibility of writing was the creation of a typographic standardization technique that applied spatial geometry to the flat print-surface of a wine press to quickly and easily map (apply) individual letters in a legible, organized and efficient fashion to a page. Gutenberg’s notion to create a grid or matrix on a print surface and allot a single letter per vector, was appropriated and extended from the process of standardization of numerals in the Indo-Arabic place-value system which revolutionized Europe through the introduction of the sign Zero in mathematics: “It was not until the possibility existed to replace the empty space by any letter that the inner ability to write was transformed into the materiality of the letter case” (38). The technology of the Gutenberg press created the possibility for previously internalized medium of writing to be transformed into the external materiality through the medium of print. In the same way I will argue that the technology of the Internet creates the possibility for historically internalized semantic violence to be transmitted, transformed expressed in cybertext and allowed to harmlessly pass through the historical blindness’s and limits of thought in perspective of print and be used in strange and exciting new ways in the anonymous mode.
Kittler credits the Renaissance polymath Alberti, founder of modern cryptography with the insight to reverse the mathematization at the base of Gutenberg’s press which evolved its own principle of letter-frequency analysis (indirectly mapping out the finite field of alphabetic letters and the quantity needed of each) based on the practical evolutionary requirements for more frequent access to some letters over others in the process of mass producing books. Alberti developed a mechanics of moveable letters using modal arithmetic to surpass the simple yet powerful Caesarian code by using two disks, one fixed and one moveable. (Kittler 40). Having successfully appropriated the difficult (or simple, depending on your perspective) legwork of developing a key to modern cryptography, Alberti also made a significant contribution to the representational mediative technology of his day. Alberti’s other major contribution was in the field of media technology. By utilizing the perspectival geometry of vision, along with an early pin-hole camera, Alberti discovered he could generate reproductions that were “as free from mistakes as Gutenberg’s printed books” (41). The camera obscura was valued highly in the arts it for its ability to remove noise from the reproduction of visual art. By using a fixed perspective and the properties inherent in light waves, Alberti created technology that could reduce, enlarge, convert and reproduce natural vistas transmitted in light waves and project them onto a blank surface though a narrow slit. Words, wine press, vectoral matrix, print. Vista, blank screen, pin-hole slit, camera obscura. Vision, pupil, brain, thought. The structural congruities between media, technology, cryptograpy and experience eventually lead Alberti to publish the book Treatise on Painting, which transformed knowledge about the silent technique of perspective traditionally only transmitted orally “into a theory that could be acquired autodidactically” by any literate reader (42).
In a similar way, anonymous online users function as narrow slits or pupils, which if properly open, are able to perceive, conceive and express their unique perspective of the world through the medium of cybertext in the anonymous mode. The common argument for intertexuality in literature states: “a text cannot be created simply out of lived experience. A novelist writes a novel because he or she is familiar with this kind of textual organization of experience.” (Ong 130) Likewise, societies don’t exist ahistorically outside of time nor are they without experiences contingent on specific social contexts or devoid of perspectival bias. People experience the world in a myriad of entirely unique ways, each one tacitly formed by inherited and learned biases, attitudes and assumptions acquired from the experience of daily social life. Today, some of these social individual’s (powerusers) are becoming aware of their inherited historical perspectives, and through the robust new medium of cybertext are developing the ability to use, think and express themselves and communicate with each other in historically impossible ways. These inherited perspectives have been taken for granted because our ability to understand them has been limited to the modal perspective of linear print and thought. But, as Ong echoes McLuhan on the impact of print on thought:
With the fixed point of view, a fixed tone could now be preserved through the whole of a lengthy prose composition. The fixed point of view and fixed tone showed in one way a greater distance between writer and reader and in another way a greater tacit understanding. (Ong 132)
By squinting their perceptual focus and examining the painful, blurry semantic nuance present in particularly popular perspectives represented frequently in cybertext over an extended period of time, much broader, historical attitudes, blindnesses and assumptions can be found tacitly unfolding throughout history. In order for this new mode of anonymous perception to become possible, a user first needs to map out and have access to vast fields of literature, culture or art- any form of personal expression or utterance really- and to take the time and care to notice and examine faint patterns of attitudes, tones and assumptions where none are assumed to exist- which tends to be in the most violent, offensive or traumatizing sorts of expression. Online in cyberculture, certain local anonymous communities have become de facto petrie dishes for this type of communicative economy. In these potentially frightening, disturbing or upsetting places, users are granted the freedom to express themselves and their perceived experience of pain under the veil of anonymity by echoing each others violence, and exaggerating or magnifying offensive expressions to such extremes that other, less experienced users are shocked and awed into experiencing such residual semantic violence in grotesque and traumatic forms in order to make that which is hidden, obvious.
The way we use technology to communicate always already reflexively impacts the mode and frequency in which we are able to engage in the expression of thought. Because technological innovation has opened up new possibilities and intensities for words to be inscribed, mechanically represented in print and now used in cybertext, a new mode of thought and expression is also becoming possible for some anonymous users. The effect of this process is hyper-accelerated by the instantaneity of online communication, and is the next phase of evolution of a new form consciousness and ontological becoming I will describe as the user mode of existence. The user mode consists of a fusion of the qualities and characteristics of primary orality and literacy.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller and Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Trans. Chris Turner. Oxford: BERG, 2005. Print.
Kittler, Friedrich A. “The Perspective of Print.” Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Configurations 10.1 (2002): 37-50. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Ed. Lewis H. Lapham. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994. Print.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Peters, John Durham. “Communication: History of the Idea.” Ed. Wolfgang Donsbach. International Encyclopedia of Communication Blackwell Oxford (2008): 689-93. Print.
PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Recently married to my beautiful, cosmic muse of a wife. Research interests: How digital anonymity works in practice (from the inside) and affects the way online users thinl, relate and impact each other, and the world, away from the keyboard. Please contact me if you have any questions, answers or jokes.
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