You register a facebook simply because everyone has it. You listen to Lady Gaga although you don’t like the melodies, just wanting to keep up with the trends. You read synopsis of classics instead of really investing in the original pieces because you want to be “versatile”. Time is fleeting; you suddenly realize that 5 hours have passed. Your eyes ache and you close them to rest. You ask yourself: what have I done today? Silent, deadly silent; in your mind, everything is chaotic. As the physical eyes engage too hastily in obtaining information, the mind’s eyes shut down. The piles of undone homework lying in the corner serve as an ironic answer to your question.
This may be a typical weekend for most of the college students now. We are lost inside this huge communication web woven by us. Sitting back and closing our eyes, one question rings in our head: today, in the electronic prosperity (the pervasiveness of electronic gadgets), with oceanic information so readily accessible to us, is it a boon or a bane?
So many authors have obsessed with this question; Sven Birkerts is one of them. In his essay “Into the Electronic Millennium”, he claims that the electronic monitors rip language out of contexts. While the print medium “exalts words”, offering them a shrine to revered by logophiles and language enthusiasts, the electronic counterpart “reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.”(Birkerts, 472) Indeed, in the past, we read books page-by-page, moving forward steadily, with “earlier contents at every point serving as a ground fro what follows”(Birkerts, 471). However, with computers, we can simply type in keywords in Google and let the circuits generate texts for us. In this high efficient world, we often skip and scan sentences that only contain our desired key words, without reading the texts as a whole. Such reading behavior prevents us from analyzing critically and coherently. Birkerts summarizes the outcome of breezing through contents on monitors: “ The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative.”(Birkerts, 472)
The advent of electronic media changes our collective sensibility; we multitask and put emphasis on efficiency. We also, to some extent, lose our individuality. As what has been revealed in the beginning paragraph, we often do things we don’t really like to cater to the community because we don’t want to be “outsiders”. I am no exclusion. Three years ago, the animation “Death Note” was very popular in China. People were discussing the plot, the characters and the meaning of the story everywhere. Although I was not so into the animation, I forced myself to sit before the computer and finished watching the 37-episode cartoon within 3 days, simply because I didn’t want to be utterly ignorant when my friends mentioned “Yagami Light” or “Misa”(characters in “Death Note”). But in order to save time, I always used the arrow key to forward the video whenever I got bored. I also talked on the phone or did homework sometimes during watching the animation. In Birkerts words, I “ incessantly reposition[ed] the self within a barrage of on-rushing stimuli.” (Birkerts, 473) But since I dispersed my attention on so many things, I could not concentrate and did well in any of them. As a result, after 3 days of watching compactly, what left in my brain were pieces of the story and the names of several characters. Afterwards I occasionally read an article about “Death Note” written by a fan of “Death Note” in a magazine. In the article, the author analyzed the incomplete parts in the animation specifically, corroborating with many details and scenes. The author also revealed the essence of “Death Note”, that is, does absolute justice exist? Does absolute power lead to absolute corruption? Those details and scenes were all the things that I had never noticed when I was watching because I moved too fast to let my mind ponder on it for a while.
Our “collective sensibility” has been changed in the fast-paced world. We are multitrack and we follow the crowd. Language, as the embodiment of our thoughts and ideas, also suffers. Today, the highly abbreviated language is universal in text messages and forums. The following are a few striking instances: “R U goin 2 the party 2 night? “ “GTG (Got to go).” “2G2BT(Too good to be true)”. These cases undoubtedly corroborate Birkerts’ prediction: “the transition from the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication will radically alter the ways in which we use language on every societal level” and “ [t]he complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of ‘plain speak’.”(Birkerts, 474) In those highly abbreviated language, no syntactic art exists. Birkerts laments the dying of syntactic art: “ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety and wit are disappearing”. (Birkerts, 474)
From Birkerts’ essay, it is certain that electronic era has reduced language to “a signal, a means to an end” and that “a collective change of sensibility [is] upon us. (Birkerts, 472) ” But we are not so clear why syntactic art matters so much and why language is so important to human being that we need to protect it.
There is a beautiful Chinese tale about the origin of language: Long ago, when the Chinese ancestors were washing their clothes alongside the river after a long lifeless winter, they saw the advent of pink buds, green burgeons and lovely cuckoos (the herald of spring in Chinese poems). A surge of ecstasy arose in their minds. They rushed to tell the news but found it unutterable because they had no language. Finally they decided to use the sound “?” (spring) to describe the scene they saw. When the sound “?” slipped through the throat, the tongue and the teeth, it felt as if a stream of clear water was flowing out of the mouth, melting all the remaining ice of the winter.
This process of language development may be universal. Suzanne K. Langer, in her essay “Signs and Symbols”, reveals the significance of language: “ Because man has not only the ability but the constant need of conceiving what has happened to him, what surrounds him, what is demanded of him—in short, of symbolizing nature, himself, and his hopes and fears—he has a constant and crying need of expression. What he cannot express, he cannot conceive; what he cannot conceive is chaos, and fills with terror.”(Langer, 528) As senses, ideas and thoughts are intangible, thus we materialize them into language. Language helps our mind’s eye to see clearly; it is “the highest and most amazing achievement of the symbolistic human mind.”(Langer, 529) Language represents our ability to think figuratively and therefore distinguishes us from animals. Language is not only a communication tool, but also a way to conceive.
But if we use electronic media to “reduce [language] to a signal, a means to an end”, what will the result in return reduce us to?
The Nobel Prize in Literature has never been granted to a Chinese author although we think that we have several great poets and novelists that deserve the prize. We Chinese students often joked that because the judges of Nobel Prize were all westerners, they could not fully understand and appreciate the resourcefulness of Chinese literature. I don’t know whether this is the reason or how much it accounts for the reason, but the rule can apply to all languages: in translating a literature work from one language to another, there is an inevitable loss of the original’s richness.
As a student born and raised in China who lives in New York right now, I have experienced the loss of richness and nuances in translation. On one hand, I read the translations of Chinese classics in English, only to discover that they have been distorted. On the other hand, I cannot fully comprehend the chosen texts in my Writing the Essay class so reading in English is not fun at all. To me, English is like the reduced language, “a means to an end”; I don’t enjoy reading and using English, but I force myself to do so because I want a better grade and hope to bring it to the same level with my Chinese (Birkerts, 472). To me, Chinese is like the holy, uncontaminated language. When I open a Chinese history book, I can easily let my vision soar, as if flying through thousand of years to uncover a story buried under the dust of time.
I read a science fiction piece so many years ago that I can neither recall its name nor its author, but there is one scene that is planted in my heart. 2000 years in the future, people invented a special chip and wire. They insert the chips into their brains to collect brainwaves and record thoughts. Whenever they want to communicate with each other, a wire will be plugged into the two humans bodies to transmit the waves. A person can choose to transmit any pieces of information in his memory or thoughts. Language disappears at that time because human no longer need it. However, as language is reduced and finally disappear, humans are reduced to creatures similar to robots.
Some may say that if it happens, it is the inevitable tendency of history and we needn’t worry so much about something so far from us in the future. Well, true, it seems that we are now moving towards that extreme, but we cannot sit back and let something so detrimental happen. If everyone realizes its disadvantage and joins forces to develop language, we can make a big difference. But should we make the difference? Birkerts doesn’t give us a solution in his essay. It is a question he leaves for us to explore.
When I turn to Pat C. Hoy II, his answer is: improve and use your minds’ eyes. In his essay “Healing Conceptual Blindness”, he demonstrates the importance of opening the mind’s eyes. To open the mind’s eyes is to meditate, to contemplate; it is “the act of conception—the moment when the mind’s eye sees, when the evidence begins to make sense, to shape sense.”(Hoy II, 314) According to Hoy II, instead of opening the bodily eyes and taking in so much information, we should use our minds’ eyes to see things through, to understand. To practice the seeing of our mind’s eyes, we must actively engage in the texts we are reading, to encounter “the moment that yields insight” because “surprise come from struggle and surrender (Hoy II, 311).” Instead of treating language as “a means to an end”, we must utilize it to materialize our and help the mind to conceive and to make sense and to develop our own voice.(Birkerts, 472)
The mind’s eyes, if disused, will be reduced and degraded. We will lose our ability to think individually. And human may in turn be reduced to robotic creatures and into the oceanic homogeneity because we no longer have our individuality, just as what happens in the science fiction piece mentioned before. But is brainwave another kind of language? Or is brainwave another mode of medium for language? Will language flourish on brainwaves? These questions are hard to answer because it is too far from us in the future. But one thing is sure: we must do whatever we can to maintain our individuality. We need to develop language as long as it is the most effective tool for thinking and communicating.
Birkerts, Sven. “Into the Electronic Millennium.” Occasions for Writing. Ed.
Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 469-76.
Suzanne K. Langer. “Sighs and Symbols.” Occasions for Writing. Ed.
Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 526-534.
Hoy II, Pat C. (2009)'Healing Conceptual Blindness’, Rhetoric Review, 28:3, 304-324