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May 2, 2012

Word Order
  The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear
  By Lewis H. Lapham

  I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
  -- Emperor Charles V

  But in which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by
way of response? The questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of
which we’ve learned to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the
equipment that scans the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the
EKG, arranges the assignations on and the high-frequency trades at
Goldman Sachs, catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when
and where to connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.

  Why then does it come to pass that the more data we collect -- from Google,
YouTube, and Facebook -- the less likely we are to know what it means?

The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the
presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no
connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has no
experience whatever.” He published Understanding Media in 1964, proceeding from
the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our tools, and
thereafter our tools shape us.”

Media were to be understood as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware
agents,” not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls
and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new
structures of feeling and thought.

To account for the transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media,
McLuhan examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological
status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of
moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on manuscript
in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of the world along
the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, radio, movie camera,
television screen, eventually the computer), favored a sensibility that runs in circles,
compressing or eliminating the dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into
montage, the word replaced with the icon and the rebus.

Within a year of its publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy
Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New York Herald
Tribune proclaimed him “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud,
Einstein, and Pavlov.” Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism -- “The electric
light is pure information”; “In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin” --
McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look into the window of the
future at what was both obvious and certain.

Floating the Fiction of Democracy

In 1964 I was slow to take the point, possibly because I was working at the time in a
medium that McLuhan had listed as endangered -- writing, for The Saturday Evening
Post, inclined to think in sentences, accustomed to associating a cause with an effect,
a beginning with a middle and an end. Television news I construed as an attempt to
tell a story with an alphabet of brightly colored children’s blocks, and when offered the
chance to become a correspondent for NBC, I declined the referral to what I regarded
as a course in remedial reading.

The judgment was poorly timed. Within five years The Saturday Evening Post had
gone the way of the great auk; news had become entertainment, entertainment news,
the distinctions between a fiction and a fact as irrelevant as they were increasingly
difficult to parse. Another 20 years and I understood what McLuhan meant by the
phrase, “The medium is the message,” when in the writing of a television history of
America’s foreign policy in the twentieth century, I was allotted roughly 73 seconds in
which to account for the origins of World War II, while at the same time providing a
voiceover transition between newsreel footage of Jesse Owens running the hundred-
yard dash at the Berlin Olympics in the summer of 1936, and Adolf Hitler marching the
Wehrmacht into Vienna in the spring of 1938.

McLuhan regarded the medium of television as better suited to the sale of a product
than to the expression of a thought. The voice of the first person singular becomes
incorporated into the collective surges of emotion housed within an artificial kingdom
of wish and dream; the viewer’s participation in the insistent and ever-present promise
of paradise regained greatly strengthens what McLuhan identified as “the huge
educational enterprise that we call advertising.” By which he didn’t mean the
education of a competently democratic citizenry -- “Mosaic news is neither narrative,
nor point of view, nor explanation, nor comment” -- but rather as “the gathering and
processing of exploitable social data” by “Madison Avenue frogmen of the mind” intent
on retrieving the sunken subconscious treasure of human credulity and desire.

McLuhan died on New Year’s Eve 1979, 15 years before the weaving of the World
Wide Web, but his concerns over the dehumanized extensions of man (a society in
which it is the machine that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of the
thing) are consistent with those more recently noted by computer scientist Jaron
Lanier, who suggests that the data-mining genius of the computer reduces individual
human expression to “a primitive, retrograde activity.” Among the framers of the digital
constitution, Lanier in the mid-1980s was a California computer engineer engaged in
the early programming of virtual reality.

In the same way that McLuhan in his more optimistic projections of the electronic
future had envisioned unified networks of communication restoring mankind to a state
of freedom not unlike the one said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, so too
Lanier had entertained the hope of limitless good news. Writing in 2010 in his book
You Are Not a Gadget, he finds that the ideology promoting radical freedom on the
surface of the Web is “more for machines than people” -- machines that place
advertising at the “center of the human universe… the only form of expression
meriting general commercial protection in the new world to come. Any other form of
expression to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of

The reduction of individual human expression to a “primitive, retrograde activity”
accounts for the product currently being sold under the labels of “election” and
“democracy.” The candidates stand and serve as farm equipment meant to cultivate
an opinion poll, their value measured by the cost of their manufacture; the news
media’s expensive collection of talking heads bundles the derivatives into the
commodity of market share. The steadily higher cost of floating the fiction of
democracy -- the sale of political television advertising up from nearly $200 million in
the presidential election of 1996 to $2 billion in the election of 2008 -- reflects the
ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact.

Like the music in elevators, the machine-made news comes and goes on a
reassuringly familiar loop, the same footage, the same spokespeople, the same
commentaries, what was said last week certain to be said this week, next week, and
then again six weeks from now, the sequence returning as surely as the sun,
demanding little else from the would-be citizen except devout observance. French
Novelist Albert Camus in the 1950s already had remanded the predicament to an
aphorism: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the

Ritual becomes the form of applied knowledge that both McLuhan and Lanier define
as pattern recognition -- Nike is a sneaker or a cap, Miller beer is wet, Paris Hilton is
not a golf ball. The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s
googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the guarantee of
being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their own invention --
money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl -- the technology can be understood, in
Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so arranging the world that we
don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the
degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, designer dress,
politician custom-fitted to a super PAC) the amassment of wealth and the acquisition
of power follows from the labeling of things rather than from the making of them.

The Voice of Money Talking to Money

Never have so many labels come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and
MSNBC, but also on the Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at
Yankee Stadium. The achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of
“innovative delivery strategies” that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with
“quicker access to valued customers.”

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

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