Over the last month millions, if not billions, of emails, texts, Tweets, Likes, and comments were exchanged over the internet by more than one billion individuals. However, despite the multitude of voices taking part there was one that was missing: the La(z)y Intellectual. Over one month ago this website promised to go live and begin offering weekly and daily content to you, the denizens of the Internet. A quick glance at the front page clearly shows this didn’t happen. What happened to the stories, the interviews, and the book reviews that you were promised? In today’s post I discuss the primary reason for their delay: the loss of my Voice and the changing role of language on the internet.
In preparing this article, it struck me that for many people around the world limitations on communication are now primarily conceptualized in technological rather than physiological terms . As individuals with laptops and cell phones, Wi-Fi hotspots and the strength of cell signals have become the foremost indicators of whether or not we are able to communicate with others. As a society we have moved, through technology, beyond the physical limitations on communication that once made the story of Helen Keller so inspiring. This shift from physical communication to technologically assisted communication has largely rendered the concept of incommunicability obsolete. However, as I have discovered, this shift has in turn created new forms of incommunicability that pose additional barriers to effective communication. It is these forms of digital incommunicability that possessing a Voice can break down or, at the very least, minimize.
The situation I’ve posed may appear confusing or, at the very least, paradoxical. How can a form of communication, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the act or process of transmitting information,” prevent “effective” communication? To answer in brief, the key is context.
Language is, at its most basic level, utilitarian; it provides us with a means of “transmitting information” but has no inherent meaning itself. It is the context in which we situate words, like “Gay” and “Straight” in discussions of sexuality and gender norms, that gives them their meaning. As a result, we end up with a hierarchy of language: all language is equally meaningless, but contextualized language is more meaningful than uncontextualized language. To illustrate this, let’s examine a classic line from the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
In the film, the villain Darth Vader says to the hero Luke Skywalker, “Luke, I am your father!” The information this line provides us is that the speaker is the father of the addressee. But if we remove it from it’s context, this same line of dialogue could very easily have been uttered by any of the fathers of the millions of Lukes around the world and throughout history. Forced to substitute our own understanding of what context the line was spoken in we find a large possible variety: it can be the first words of a father meeting his newborn, or of a father being reunited after years of forced separation, or the chastising words of an angry father, or it could even be the words of a villain revealing a hidden truth to a film’s hero. Without being aware of the context in which it was spoken, this iconic piece of cinematic history loses its meaning and its impact.
What is fascinating is that with the shift towards digital communication we are in many ways abandoning context in favour of a much simpler and more utilitarian language. If we look at Facebook statuses, Tweets, or comments on blogs, we often find that the writer is “speaking” to us in a highly decontextualized manner: “I’m tired,” “That movie was dumb,” I’m about to leave,” “I don’t like Twilight” etc. We have no idea what provoked the comments, or the situations that led to them; all we have is raw, contextless information. Imagine how bizarre the line “Luke, I am your father!” would be as a Facebook post rather than a movie quote. With such a basic use of language, are we really communicating with each other? Or are we monologuing? This brings us back to our original discussion of the shift in communication techniques and how “effective” they are.
Communication is not strictly language based; it can also be conveyed through symbols and actions. When engaging in a face-to-face conversation our counterpart is able to convey, through tone, posture, and situational context a greater degree of information to us than if the same conversation was performed over an instant messaging service. By reducing the amount of sources from which we gain contextual knowledge, we reduce our ability to communicate our intent and, therefore, what we mean. The fact that many have proposed adding a sarcasm mark to our digital lexicon is proof enough that our ability to convey meaning via digital technology is at times insufficient.
But context is not something that we simply add to our writing; it something created by our writing. That is what a Voice is, the narrative structure that determines how a reader will respond to a character or series of described events, or even who the reader is likely to be. By changing the tone of their Voice an author can govern what type of content is discussed (or avoided) and whether the overall conclusion a reader draws from it is a positive, neutral, or negative one. The Voice can therefore be thought of as a literary means of expressing the contextual clues found in personal communication that are needed to accurately discern the purpose, intent, and meaning of an article.
To use this post as an example, the Voice used here has thus far taken a pessimistic tone towards digital communication and has been written in a style that is (hopefully) easy to read, but (unfortunately) of enough length that the casually curious would be disinterested. Were I of a different opinion, or a different person altogether, I could present the same information in a more positive, jargon laden, and opaque Voice that would appeal to an academic crowd.
Although the type of Voice used can make certain conversations impossible for some to follow, like those of specialists, its ability to provide additional contextual clues allows more general conversations to be fully understood. With the decreased contextualization of information on the internet limiting the effectiveness of our ability to communicate meaning and intent clearly, this capacity for thinking in terms of Voice allows us to be much more aware of what we are communicating online, and how. In short, if you write with purpose, your writing will reflect your purpose.
So, having discussed the difficulties of communicating on the internet and the importance of having a Voice, how did I lose mine and how did I find it again?
As someone who spent five and half years in post-secondary institutions, I learned to write in a specific style: the style that gets you good marks. Or rather, I learned to write in an academic style that was both impersonal and meant for “insiders” who already knew what I was telling them. Although satisfactory within the halls of Academia, this particular Voice is ill suited for a website that is meant for casually intellectual individuals interested in discussing important issues. After a number of failed attempts at writing in the old style I realized that if the La(z)y Intellectual were to move forward I would have to lose my Voice in order to find the one I needed.
Although I have not fully reached the point at which I can write in the clear and accessible Voice that this website needs, this post is the first step. Having made this first step I can now make the next step, and the next, and the next, and the next. It may be a month late, but you’ll get the content you were promised and, hopefully, more.
If you have any questions or suggestions about how I can improve the tone or readability of this website, please leave a comment below or contact me at d.burbidge at lazyintellectual.com