Relevance, Obsolescence, and the Computer as a Cultural Mainstay

Language is an ever-evolving system by which we create meaning and share that meaning with others. It is a bridge to understanding others’ experiences and perspectives. Language is a collective, collaborative effort that changes along with the people and generations who use it for their own unique purposes, depending on what is relevant to a society at the time.

While people may be mortal, computers and digital documentation of human language is not so mortal. In a way, computers and digital technology may be thought of as an immortal mainstay for culture and language–for linguistic culture. They document and preserve how humans once created and shared meaning through words.

But what role do computers and digital technology platforms play in preserving, or at least documenting, human meaning-making? The case of the word “gaslighting” is an interesting example.

During a group discussion in one of my college English classes, I brought up the word “gaslight” and how it applied to an abusive relationship between characters within one of our reading assignments. (The text was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow “Wallpaper,” for those curious.) As a self-declared classic movie buff, I assumed that the meaning of this word–which originally became coined and consequently universalized from the 1944 movie Gaslight, a movie with which I was familiar–was common knowledge to everyone in the room. While my professor was familiar with the word, I quickly became aware that none of my classmates were, and had to explain that this word meant to “psychologically manipulate someone into becoming insane.”

The next day, while reading James Gleick’s The Information for ENGL 340, I coincidentally came across this now-obscure word once again. “[T]he technology for gaslight had not been invented [prior to the twentieth century],” Gleick writes. “Nor had the technology for motion pictures.” As Gleick explains, “[The word] exists only because enough people saw the 1944 film of that title and could assume that their listeners had seen it, too” (p. 76). Through cultural interest in a movie, a word and its meaning were born, gained relevance, and were shared into society’s collective consciousness.

While the meaning of the word “gaslight” could have been usefully applied to people or characters long before (or after, for that matter) the 1944 movie ever came into existence, the technology that allowed the word to become culturally relevant did not exist until that year. Luckily, the technology preventing the word from becoming forever extinct (if not irrelevant/obsolete/endangered) and preventing its meaning from becoming unknown to any humans, has also been invented: VCR’s, DVD’s, movie streaming platforms, digital dictionaries that now include the word “gaslight,” etc.

While this word seems to be relevant to my life lately as both a classic movie enthusiastic and English major, I am aware that “gaslight” is not a common vocab term to come across in the twenty-first century. Its technological-turned-etymological source, the 1944 movie, has become decidedly more obsolete; in turn, so has the cultural relevance of the word’s meaning. And so, too, then, has the word itself.

While movies may be a relevant technological platform in general, black-and-white films are not particularly popular types of movies anymore. When a certain type of technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete, it follows that its cultural byproducts do too. By this logic, technology is important in the present for being a producer and diffuser of cultural meaning in the form of language–especially temporary “slang.” Technology is important in the past for being a preserver of what was once culturally relevant, even if it has ceased to be relevant in the present.

At the intersection between past and present, between what is relevant and what is obsolete, is the digital humanities. And computers are the immortal platform that allows the digital humanities to exist in both the past and present–and future.

In this way, technology–be it in the form of movies, or the Internet where now-obsolete vocabulary definitions are forever preserved for users’ future reference–connects humans from all generations in time. It allows human meaning and language to also become immortal. Be it Shakespeare’s texts, or niche vocabulary term from a 1944 movie, language is forever being invented, used, and then filed away for future technology users to come across, either by accident or by intent. In essence, computers–like print literature–have become an extension of the human mind, of society’s collective consciousness, where language and meaning are stored.

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