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.

The Emergence of Written Language

Long before the electronic age emerged, was a time where even the earliest form of communication, written language, did not exist. It is hard to think of what it would be like to live in this time. Imagine navigating through life without road signs, instructions, or letters from grandma. My generation grew up in the digital age, so not only are we used to written language, but we have the luxury of constant immediate access to this form of communication from anywhere in the world right at our fingertips.

Though it’s hard to picture life without writing, there was a time this was the way humans lived. Oral communication was the only method of delivering messages. As writing emerged, there was quite a bit of backlash. Notable people such as Plato argued that, “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the mind of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory” (Gleick, 30). Further arguments mention that writing separates the speaker from the writer. While this holds true, I believe that this can be viewed as a pro of writing rather than a con. The ability to communicate from a distance, whether that be in miles or in time, is an advancement that enables us to reach an incredibly large number of people to share ideas and learn from one another.

The early dependence on oral language, which transitioned into written and now digital computing, is notably prevalent in the humanities, and in my opinion makes the study of humanities possible. The evolution of written language itself is a topic that can be studied within the humanities. But taking it a step further, the transition from written language to digital written language was a major turning point in the timeline of human evolution. It is hard to see, as we are living in it currently and making history. However, the connections that we are able to make due to the creation of written language turned digital has opened the humanities up to endless resources and possibilities. Literature can be accessed within seconds, educators can communicate from opposite sides of the world. Collaborations can be made between people in different time zones in a fraction of the amount of time it would take prior to the evolution of technology.

“The larger the number of senses involved, the better the chance of transmitting a reliable copy of the sender’s mental state,” said Jonathan Miller (Gleick, 48). Miller argues that the emerging forms of technological communication, in this case being the telegraph, telephone, radio and e-mail, rely only on one sense to relay a message from one person to another. While this is technically true, how so does this make these forms of communication inferior to face to face oral communication? Is it so that having an educated conversation over the phone with someone from Europe on a topic that this person would have insider information on, is not worth having simply because you are only hearing their voice rather than speaking face to face? I would argue that this is a very limiting point of view to have, and keeps one from taking advantage of the endless opportunities to learn when technology is put to use.

Though written language, and digital language specifically, is frequently considered to be detrimental to classic communication, the evolution of written language is an integral part of the studies of humanities as a whole. Studying this topic is almost like the brain studying itself, because humanists study how people document the human experience, which is exactly what this post is. I am a humanist. Without the transition from oral to written language, humanist studies would hardly be possible.

Computing the Humanities

When I think of the humanities, I usually think about old, dusty books about religions, or big events, like the holocaust or the great migration. I never think about using technology to study humanities. however, that is exactly what I started doing when I got into the 340 English class, Digital Humanities.

In order for me to study the humanities, I would need information about past events. Now of course, I can go to a library and pull out whatever books I need to study, but that becomes a tedious task. I would have to sort through the library’s selection of thousands upon thousands of books just to find maybe three certain books that have to do with my topic. Even with a good organizational system, it could take hours to find the right books. This is where technology comes in to help. Nowadays, almost all libraries have all of their books mapped out through an online system. Finding a physical book can become as simple as searching certain keywords in their website and having the computer find it for you. This can make a process that usually take hours turn into only a few minutes. Now sometimes, you don’t get access to a library because maybe there’s none in your area, or maybe your library gets asbestos and closes down until 2024. Either way, that doesn’t mean that information isn’t available anymore. In fact, there’s so much information floating out in the world it becomes hard to keep track of physically. According to what James Gleick says in his book The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, “As the role of information grows beyond anyone’s reckoning, it grows to be too much.” With so much information out there, how do you keep it all under one library roof? Again, this is where technology comes in to help. The internet has unlimited storage, so infinite information can be stored there. Now, finding information to study the humanities is as simple as just looking up the keywords and clicking on whatever I need. That is only the beginning of digital humanities.

Another part of digital humanities doesn’t include past information of what people did or big events; a big part is the computers themselves. If you really think about it, the development of computers is a huge event for humanity. One day, when people study the humanities, they’ll be learning about the first computers, the first coders, and the super rapid advancement that all happened within a lifespan. Gleick’s book talks about the different ways people communicated. It goes through different methods like talking drums and even cuneiform. Not only are these considered languages, but it’s communication. With the introduction of computers, people can write to each other from across the world, in different languages, and the other person can read it immediately in whatever language they speak due to high speed internet and translation services. In order for technology to do this, somebody needs to code it into existence. Coding itself is a whole new language. It isn’t the language of people, but rather the language of technology. So far in this Digital Humanities class, we’ve began to learn html. html is one of the most basic computer languages, or at least it is easier than other computer languages like JavaScript or C++. So technology is obviously a large part of studying the humanities now. Not only does it include language and communication, but it also has almost all information that has ever been recorded, as long as somebody takes the time to upload it to the internet.

Universal Design for Literature

Tribes in Africa were calling each other way before the invention of any modern means of long-distance or instant communication were invented. However, their technological breakthrough was ignored because of racism and western-centrism. These tribes could have conversations with one another from miles apart in a language spoken by drums and their drummers. Before you could just pick up your phone to check the news or call a friend, these tribes were communicating news of arrivals, warnings, and even jokes with one another by using their drums. This kind of innovation closely resembles a principle that comes from architecture and education. What in the world does architecture have to do with education? They are both the most effective when using universal design. Universal design is when architects consider all types of abilities when they are creating a new building. This leads to fully functional and incorporated wheelchair ramps, elevators, and anything else that may help people who have disabilities navigate the space. You can tell a building hasn’t been built by anyone who’s heard of universal design when there is a rickety wheelchair ramp awkwardly slapped onto it. In education this is called universal design for learning. When writing a lesson plan a teacher can either write a lesson plan for the general population of the classroom and then modify it for students with special needs or write a lesson plan with all students in mind. Often the lesson plan that’s written with the individual students in mind is better for all students, not just those with special needs. 

What does this have to do with talking drums? Well universal design is only just picking up traction because people have a very difficult time thinking about people with disabilities if they don’t have one themself. Why would an architect who doesn’t use a wheelchair think to incorporate a ramp into the design of a building? Furthermore, people often don’t realize that making things accessible for people with disabilities can be useful for everyone. For example, no one expected texting to be popular. Texting was simply a late addition to phones so that people who are deaf could use phones to communicate. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, but I text constantly. I’m not deaf, but this addition to phones is something I use every single day. No one thought that it would be popular because it was originally thought of as something only people who are deaf would use. People who don’t have disabilities have an incredibly hard time realizing that things designed with all types of abilities in mind are usually more effective. Similarly, Europeans “described Africans as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’ (Gleick 16) which is why the drum system never caught on anywhere else. People couldn’t see past their racism much like today people have a difficult time seeing past their ableism. 

This affects the world of literature, and especially digital literature, much more than anyone might realize. A huge question people in humanities have today is, where do the humanities fit in this ever-growing technological world? People wonder what’s lost when a book is no longer ink on paper, but they never question what’s gained. With computers, books are more accessible to everyone. Audio books help people who are visually impaired or have a reading disability such as dyslexia access the world of literature easily. Not only are audio books more accessible than something such as braille, people who don’t have a visual impairment or reading disability also enjoy audio books. The ease of access to audio books and furthermore eBooks has sparked a revival of reading. More people can read or listen to books right on their phone. While academics wonder what we’re losing by converting our reading from paper to computer, they don’t realize that this opens the world of literature to a whole group of people who previously weren’t able to access books this easily. Instead of following the lead of the Europeans when faced with the talking drums, humanities academics should take the transfer of books from physical to digital seriously as it invites more people into the conversation. Ignoring what can be gained from literature’s collision with technology would be as foolish as waiting years and years for Morse Code when the talking drums exist as a means of instant communication. Letting racism blind them from all of the technology and culture of Africa was a major mistake made by the world. The same mistake shouldn’t be made when it comes to adapting universal design to literature. Just because texting was made for people who are deaf, doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t benefit from it. Similarly, just because audio books benefit people who have visual impairments or reading disabilities doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t also benefit from them.

Switching to universal design in literature may seem like going “directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages” (Gleick 27), but it’s not as far fetched of an idea as it may seem. Just like how the talking drums are not that different from the mobile phone in their goal or level of complexity (while the drums didn’t require the invention of the computer, you don’t have to learn an entirely new language that involves no alphabet to use your cell phone), the traditional form of literature is not that different from a universal design of literature that’s built to include all types of people within its community.

The Evolution of Writing

When people hear the word “technology,” they often think of computers and smartphones. In James Gleick’s book The Information, he discusses Walter J. Ong and his ideas. In chapter two “The Persistence of the Word,” Gleick quotes Ong:

“the expression “to look something up” is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might “call” them back- “recall” them.” But there is nowhere to “look” for them. They have no focus and no trace.”

It is here where us as reader’s understand that writing should be considered a technology because without it, words would have no meaning. Writing should be considered a technology because it was one of the first ways we were able to retain and store information. We are able to look back in history and know what happened because of writing. Gleick states, “Writing comes into being to retain across time and across space.”

Through the use of computers, we are able to write in many new and refreshing ways. Take for example our work on VSCode. We are able to italicize words, bold words, etc. We have tools such as spell check that tell us when we are spelling something wrong. As we look to keep writing, we should use these tools like computers to help us better write about our society and culture.

Not only should we use technology to write about our society and culture, but we could also use it to better understand it as well. We could use certain applications to better enhance our writing in ways that would have been impossible before computers. We could also use online resources to gain a better level of understanding of a topic, and therefore enhance our writing of that topic. Let’s say you want to write about the idea of social classes. In a matter of seconds you can look up articles about it. As an english major, I couldn’t agree more with this point. For example, in my Big Books class, we are reading a book called Underworld by Don DeLillo. There are some areas of the book that I did not fully understand. However, through the use of online resources, I was able to see what DeLillo was trying to say through certain key scenes. So when it came time to write a reading response, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

Based on Gleick’s writings on my personal experiences, writing alone should be considered a technology. However, when you use other forms of technology, it greatly impacts and enhances one’s writing.