Who Owns Our Words?

I no longer write much with paper and pen (although I still take longhand notes in class because I don't have a lap top); I have become used to writing my papers in a word processor, using both its software features and the keyboard and mouse commands to run it. I find that I write differently than I used to when I wrote primarily "by hand." The ease with which words appear on the screen and the ease with which I can rearrange or obliterate whole pieces of text makes it easier and more "natural" to "work from the part to the whole" (Talbott 187) instead of genuinely rethinking awkward phrases and poor logical structure. Often, this "keyboard paradigm" produces carefully re-constructed works which do not address the weaknesses of earlier drafts, but hide them from both myself and my reader.

I make no pretensions that I have not become adapted somehow to this cramped-yet-somehow-effortlessness paradigm of the keyboard, with its cut and paste options and a backspace key. Neither does Talbott. And yet Talbott is rightfully concerned (in his own words) by the computer user's paradigm as such. The tendancy to think of and accept words as a direct extension of the psyche, seen in the rigid "typing habits of computer engineers" (180) and the Net's general acceptance of flaming and stream-of-consciousness text production, has its origins in the logical and physical parameters of the technology which we ourselves have constructed. And, as Talbott constantly reminds us, it is the way we approach the technology which determines how connected we are to our own meanings. Words without meaning are words without consequenses, and on the Net, in many ways, our words are ourselves.

It is here, in The Electronic Word, that Talbott deals with a crucial consideration: Computerized technology is limited (so far, at least) by an inability to be creative. Computers are, after all, just processors of information we give them, and "the information processor demands text in which outer form and intended meaning are as predictable as possible" (190). In a mediated world, Talbott reminds us, it is easy to accept the mediated word as the container of all meaning, for "a formal language is all form and no content." The media becomes accepted as (no surprise) the message. Talbott's case is that allowing this limited and formalized technology to determine how we think of the world and ourselves limits and formalizes the ways in which we see ourselves. And the formalization of language and symbolic thinking, in turn, has the potential to stagnate human development. Symbols, once divorced from the experience which they were created to abstractly convey, can no longer be used as templates to communicate new experiences if all experience can only be understood in the same abstract terms. Creation is impossible without innovation.

Talbott sees a similar cause at the root of the current "craze for information" in the online world. Where we should be looking for wisdom, he says, the climate of passive consumption encourages us to fill the gap of our lost self and lost meaning with more consumption. At the same time, the formal logic of the computer makes it more difficult to see beneath the information to its meaning, while our continued acceptance of this logic continues to reduce the connection between the symbols we use and the world they are intended to portray. Thus, due to its informational-based nature, the computer encourages us to think of power in terms of "informational omniscience" (211). It teaches us that amassing information, not critical thought and attentiveness to underlying meaning, is the means to our salvation.

Kevin Hunt, in his Computer Mediated Communication magazine review of The Future Does Not Compute, suggests that Talbott "fails to consider how the computer may enable composing processes that reflect culturally specific modes of thought and communication," and further accuses Talbott of assuming that "there is only one genuine mode of thinking, and that we must ward off the computer's ability to fragment that one genuine mode." If Talbott does not address such processes directly, however, it is only because his methods are holistic and cross-cultural in their sphere. For me, the strength of this section of Talbott's foray into his relationship with technology lies in what I see as an implied recognition of the fact that the computer user's passive stance encourages ALL "culturally specific modes of thought and communication" (by which I assume Hunt means differences in symbolic structures like Painting, Writing, and Language) to blur together. It is this underlying recognition which prompts Talbott to emphasis the importance of silence in chapter 19, "Listening for the Silence." Silence is the common bond between all culturally specific modes of thought, and to Talbott, it is in all cases "the place where the right words can come together...the dark soil through which the seedleaves of a new understanding may push through to the light" (228)

Thus, I think this relatively short section represents perhaps the strongest and tightest arguments and evidences Talbott has to offer us. It is here we see, underlying Talbott's examination of the electronic word, the roots of his assumption that only those kinds of writing and habits of expression which include reflection and silence have real value, the rest is solipistic. He bemoans email messages where it's obvious the writer hasn't backspaced or reconsidered a thought; he believes most writers become detached from what they write on the machine because the machine, over time, makes it seem the words come from it, not the writer. That is, the words, once written, seem somehow more permanent. Add to this 'feeling' the expedience and speed that is the norm in networked communication, and we drift into a tool that takes on a shape and life of its own, that shapes the user more than the user shapes and uses it. By making the dynamics of this process explicit, Talbott forces every one of us, regardless of cultural positioning, to recognize the dangers of allowing our tools to make us, instead of the other way around.

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