The Frailest Thing Is Dead

Dear readers,

In the early years of this blog, I made it a practice to post something thematic on Thanksgiving Day. I thought it might be apropos to revive that practice today with a twofold purpose.

First, to let you know that, having thought through the matter for some time, I’ve decided to bring The Frailest Thing to an end.

Second, to thank you for reading along these past ten years.

Some of you will know that I first launched this blog in late 2009 in conjunction with the first semester of my PhD program. I thought it might be useful to think out loud about what I was learning, so I first began by posting reflections on my reading. The blog took on a more general focus for awhile but soon began to focus more narrowly on matters related to technology and society with only occasional deviations from the theme. It proved to be a nice niche.

In my estimation The Frailest Thing peaked in summer of 2015 just before I took a hiatus in order to focus on my dissertation. The dissertation was never completed, but later that year I did welcome my first child and my second 19 months later. I revived the blog in 2016, but things were different then, my time and energy in shorter supply, and I don’t know that it has ever done much more than limp along since then.

In truth, the blog served me well over the years. It yielded good opportunities and allowed me to enter into valuable and engaging conversations and debates. Most importantly, my intellectual life has been deeply enriched by a number of individuals who I’ve come to know because of my writing here. For that, I will always be grateful. 

So thanks again for reading and sharing and commenting, especially those of you who’ve been around for the long haul. There is no shortage of content, as we all know, so it was always kind of startling to discover that folks were reading the words I put down here.

My plan will be to collect what I think is worth preserving from my writing here and turn that into an e-book. I will post one last time with an update once that project is complete. Stay tuned for that. Otherwise, consider this my sign off.

The end of this blog, of course, does not mean the end of my writing. For whatever combination of reasons, I’ve found a measure of satisfaction in writing my newsletter, The Convivial Society, and that is where I will be expending most of my discretionary writing time. Needless to say, please do follow along.

So, then, The Frailest Thing is dead. Long live The Convivial Society.

Cheers,

Michael

 

Nine Theses Regarding the Culture of Digital Media

1. The context of oral communication is one’s immediate audience characterized by precisely delineated embodied presence. The context of print is a discursively constituted individual interiority. The context of digital communication is disembodied immediacy characterized by distributed, algorithmically constituted presence. 

2. Communication in oral societies is agonistically toned, pugilistic. Print fosters cool, detached expression. Digital media encourages performative, ironic combativeness.

3. Oral societies privilege honor, print privileges civility, electronic media spontaneity and insouciance, digital media shamelessness. 

4. In oral society, repetition is remembrance. In cultures of print and mass media, the repeatability of content reigns. In digital culture, the repeatable form triumphs. 

5. Oral media subsumes the self in the traditions of local communities. Print, later supercharged by electronic media, lifts the self into the realm of romantic imagination and expressivist individualism. Digital media ultimately collapses the experience of romantically inflected individuation, subsuming the self into constantly generating and degenerating swarms of information.

6. In oral societies, freedom is conformity to communal standards. In the culture of print, to be free is to choose for oneself. In digital culture, freedom is relief from the obligation to choose.

7. Pre-digital rhetoric aimed at persuasion and expression. Digital media ultimately undermines the plausibility of persuasion and the desirability of expression.

8. Information scarcity encourages credulity. Information abundance encourages cynicism. Information superabundance encourages epistemic nihilism.

9. All information is now disinformation.


I write The Convivial Society, a newsletter about matters related to technology and society. You can subscribe here.

Conference on Democracy and the Internet

Not much has been going on here for the past four months or so. Not sure that will be changing anytime soon, but I did want to let you all know about a conference at which I’ll be speaking this coming Friday just in case you happen to be in or near Washington D. C.

The conference is titled “American Democracy in the Internet Age” and it will be hosted by the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University. You can read more about it here.

Do hope you all are well. As life circumstances have evolved and times have changed, the fate of this blog has ebbed and flowed. I’m not sure, honestly, whether it is long for this digital world or not. Whatever the case, my newsletter, The Convivial Society, is where I’m doing most of my writing these days. You can subscribe here if you are so inclined.

Cheers!

How to Make Twitter Morally Useful in Four Steps

I’ve developed a four-step strategy for making Twitter morally useful.

Step One: Compose your tweet

It will be best to do this with as little reflection and revision as possible. Simply compose your tweet as you are led by external circumstances and internal dispositions. N.B. Quote tweets can be especially instructive for the purposes of this exercise.

Step Two: Hold your tweet up as a mirror of your soul

This, of course, is the difficult part, but, after a moment’s effort, it should not prove all that challenging. But it will require a measure of honesty to oneself and careful attention to what one is actually thinking and feeling. Perhaps you begin with a simple question to yourself:  Why? Why am I tweeting this? Not ostensibly, but in reality. Additionally you might the following:  What do I hope this tweet will accomplish? What is it likely to accomplish? Who is the real, again not ostensible, audience? Etc. You get the idea. Finally, reflect on what the answers to questions like this reveal about you. 

Step Three: Delete the drafted tweet

Its work is done. Delete the draft. Don’t think very long about this. Just do it. Everyone, including you, will be better for it.

Step Four: Repent, do your penance, resolve to be a better human being, etc.

Seek the counsel of your moral/religious/spiritual tradition for how best to proceed along the path of moral growth.

Of course, this post is written in a somewhat facetious spirit, but only somewhat. I should add, too, that I don’t certainly don’t like what I see when I hold Twitter up as a mirror of my soul. And, yes, you could perform this exercise with other platforms; Twitter rather focuses the matter for me.

Language in the Digital Maelstrom

For a time, I taught an English Lit survey class. I often made it a point to observe, in cursory fashion, how the language we call English evolved from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare and finally to Austen, say, or Elliot. The point was to highlight how language evolves over time, but also to observe the rate at which the language evolved.

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Please bear in mind that these are the observations of someone who is not a linguist. However, to the casual observer like myself it seems as if the language evolved dramatically from the time of the one surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, likely composed c. 1000 AD, to the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s. And again there is a marked difference between Chaucer’s English and Shakespeare’s, who wrote in the late 1500s (and beyond). But then, while there is change to be sure, Shakespeare’s English seems closer to Austen and ours than his is to Chaucer’s or the Beowulf poet.

The stabilizing force would seem to be the consequences of printing, which played out over time, although, as with most things, the story is complicated. In any case, this brings us, of course, to the consequences of digital media for the evolution of language. Nothing can be said with certainty on this score, and, again, the relationship will turn out to be extremely complex. As I’ve noted elsewhere, following the media ecologists, the transitions from oral to written to printed to electric to digital forms of communication are immensely consequential. But none of the previous transitions can serve as a precise model for the transition to digital. Digital, after all, involves writing and sound and image. It is a complex medium. It retrieves features of oral culture, for example, but also preserves features of print culture. The word I’ve found myself using for its effects is scrambles

I would hazard an observation or two, though. If print was, in some respects, a stabilizing force over time, digital media will be destabilizing to some degree and in ways that are difficult to pin down. This is not necessarily a value judgment, especially if we consider the stabilizing effects of print to be a historically contingent development. Perhaps a better way of putting the matter is to say that digital media churns or stirs up our linguistic waters.

For example, digital tools of communication are still used to convey the written word, of course—you’re reading this right now—and in certain digital contexts, such writing still adheres to more conventional standards based in print culture. In other contexts, however, it does not. The case of spelling comes to mind. Spelling was notoriously irregular until late in the print era. In fact, something like a spelling bee would have been unthinkable until sometime in the 19th century (linguists, please correct if me if I’m wrong about this). But now, the practice of spelling, to the consternation of some, has once again become somewhat irregular in certain rhetorical situations. (It’s interesting to consider how the rise of autofill technologies will play out in this regard. They may very well be a conserving, stabilizing force.)

But this kind of apparent de-stabilization is not the most interesting thing going on. What has caught my attention is the destabilization of meaning. Perhaps we could distinguish between conventional flux (the flux of conventions or standards, that is) and semantic flux. Language has always exhibited both, but at varying rates. What I’m wondering is if we are experience a heightened rate of semantic flux under digital conditions. If so, then I think it would have more to do with how digital media enables disparate communities to enter into dialog with one another—although dialog seems hardly the right word for it—and in something like disembodied real time, the condition of virtual presence. A very large scale case of context collapse, if you will. In this regard, digital media radically accelerates the kind of evolution we might have seen over much longer periods of time.

Words, phrases, concepts—they are generated, disseminated, and rendered meaningless within days. The remarkably short semantic half-life of language, we might say. But these words, phrases, concepts, etc. don’t simply go away, they linger on in a kind of zombie mode:  still used but signifying nothing. The example of this phenomenon that most readily comes to mind is the notorious phrase “fake news.” I’m sure you can supply others. Indeed, virtually every key term or concept that is drawn into or arises out of contested rhetorical contexts is doomed to suffer a similar erosion of meaning.

The underlying assumptions here are simply that language is the foundation of human association and political life and that communication media amount to the infrastructure sustaining our use of language. The nature of the infrastructure inevitably informs the use of language, for better and for worse. Bad actors aside, it’s worth considering whether the scale and speed of communication enabled by digital media are ultimately unable to support what we might think of as sustainable rates of conventional and semantic change.


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