UPDATE 2, 2-26-13: Let me take a wild guess. The people who are hitting this post are taking Cmns 110, (Communication 110) at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC and have the previous edition of the text that is missing the article on Gleick's persistence of the word. I would further guess that mid-terms are upon us. Should I expect another flurry of hits during finals?
I have gone back to reading James Gleick’s excellent book The Information, a History, a Theory, a Flood. So far it has proven to be one of those books that one must stop every so often and look at a stated idea with care. Not always because the idea is hard to understand, but rather for some of the ideas, they are so obvious, yet so little thought about, that like a punch to one's solar plexus, the notion takes one’s breath away. In my imagination I think of grasping the idea in my hand and slowly rotating it like a solid body with an extremely complex shape, analyzing every nook and cranny to glean the deepest possible meaning. A friend of mine from work states it best, he savors the idea. Think about that for a moment. What happens when you savor something? Many people experience savoring a particular food. Think of your favorite dish prepared to perfection. You may employ every one of your senses to enjoy it including your hearing if it sizzles on the plate or has a distinctive sound as you chew it. (Imagine eating a fresh apple with the consistency of pudding—it wouldn’t sound right) When you savor something, you enjoy it supremely. It is easy to understand with food which appeals to our physical senses and fulfills the very basic need of nutrition, but what is savoring an idea?
The second chapter of The Information is titled "The Persistence of The Word". I had not got very far into this chapter when I was floored with an idea. Glieck starts of the chapter with some thoughts from Walter Ong:
Wikipedia, Walter J. Ong
a guy of whom I am ashamed to admit that I have never heard. Ong asks us to “try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.” He then asks us to imagine describing a horse to a culture that has only known automobiles forever. In this argument, Ong limits his notion of a horse as being an alternate source of traction verses an animal. Ong’s point to all this is that the written word is so ubiquitous to our culture, to not only our understanding of our world but to the method that we understand the world that we cannot really conceive what it would be like to not have written words. When considering language we are “automobilized”—the written word is so internalized, that we cannot effectively understand a world without writing any more than the “automobiled” culture could understand a horse having never seen one. Try to imagine not having writing! Yes, you can imagine this on a cursory, nod your head sort of way, but can you truly experience it? This strikes me on the same order (but of a lesser magnitude) of a task I asked of you in a previous post, imagine what it is like to not exist (going out like a candle flame at death). Yes, you can imagine it, but what you imagine is a vastly richer experience than truly not existing.
After allowing us to chew on Ong’s thoughts for moment Gleick give us a statistic: the vocabulary of a typical oral culture is several thousand words, the number of words in English exceeds 1 million and it increases by several thousand every year. The chapter goes on with an the concept of how the written word becomes a method of projecting ones thoughts into the future and at a distance. I have read only about 10 percent of the chapter and I am enthralled.
|”I ♥ New York|
Now think of nine hundred eighteen. What do you see? I can almost guarantee that you saw the numerals 918.
|Nine Hundred Eighteen|
Not a collection of objects, not words, but the numerals, unless nine hundred and eighteen means something to you, perhaps your tax refund, or the number of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
Ok, one thousand. What is the first thing that pops into your mind? Some of you will see a stack of money. Some may see $1000. Here again it is conditioning. A thousand dollars is a common unit of valuation. A car costs 25 thousand, a house costs 119 thousand. One more. One thousand nine hundred and eighteen, one thousand more than our nine hundred eighteen above. What pops into your mind? The numerals 1918, but then curiously (if you are either old or a historian) flu and World War 1. What jumps in my mind is the image of a doughboy and one of those weird looking WW 1 tanks that does not have a turret on the top, gas masks, and barbed wire.
Now let’s consider several more words. Arbitrary. What jumps into your mind? Magnitude. I bet you saw the written word. These are not easily recognizable things or actions. They are qualities, mental conceptions and unless they have a specific meaning to something specialized in your life, they will probably not have instant mental images associated with them.
Then I got to thinking about this concept of “looking up” things and how the written word allows that. We have dictionaries which define words. Generally one uses a dictionary to find out what a word means or how to spell or pronounce it. But what happens when you want a somewhat better word, either one more suited to the idea that you are trying to convey or simply more fancy to dazzle or baffle your audience. Then use a Thesaurus. We have encyclopedias to record generalized knowledge and books to record specific knowledge.
So look at what we can do just by having writing beyond the spoken word. Although to be very effective, it is not simply writing. Mass reproduction of the written word had to happen as well, so the printing press is a huge leap forward over simple writing. The common man can afford a book. But a really cool thing with writing occurred when man learned to harness electricity…then learned about vacuum tubes…then figured out the transistor…the printed circuit board…and the micro chip. Voilà, computers and voilà again...the Internet.
A week or so before I left for Georgia, I saw a rather clever bumper sticker. It was simply two words and I meant to write it down when I got home. I forgot it. Completely. It has been plaguing me off and on. What the hell was that bumper sticker? This morning I remembered it had the word obfuscation in it. I Googled “bumper sticker, obfuscation”. Bingo, first hit: “Eschew Obfuscation”. I didn’t even need to open the site, although I am glad I did because I was then treated to:
“Caution! I may not brake for Schrodinger’s cat.”
Which then reminded me of a tee shirt I once saw:
“Wanted dead or alive, Schrodinger’s cat.”
Which even getting further a field…which what the hell if you can’t go off subject in your own damned blog, then to hell with it…reminds me of a minor event. My wife and I took one of our cats to the vet. There was a single car in the parking lot with its headlights on. It had a bumper sticker “F--- nice people” except the u c k were not dashes. We went into the waiting room and there was a rather attractive, well dressed, young woman sitting with no animal. I said to her “At the risk of being seemingly nice, I believe you left your headlights on.” She politely thanked me and went out and turned off her lights. Beats the hell out of me.
Getting back on track, a dozen sentences ago I stated: “I Googled “bumper sticker, obfuscation.” Is there anything weird about that? Suppose the year was 1995 and I wrote that sentence, would you know what I meant? I may have Yahoooed it back then but I would not have Googled it, and yet you probably thought nothing of the sentence when you read it.
So now not only can we look up things, but we can do it with an efficiency and speed that would be inconceivable 30 years ago. And we can do it in our living rooms. We don’t have to go to a library or hire a researcher. Just own a computer and subscribe to an Internet service. Holy schmolie guacamole! What wonderful lives we lead!
Let us consider one more aspect of the writing and the Internet, opportunity. Back in the early 90’s I tried to write a book, it was going to be called “Ramblings On The Road” or “Ramblings On The Walk” or "Ramblings In the Woods” or “Ramblings on the bla, bla, bla, bla". It was going to be “Ramblings something”, because it was a collection of thoughts that I had while exercise walking in the woods. Probably due to a mild form of runner’s high, I thought I had these profound albeit jumbled thoughts while walking. Hence the “Ramblings”. (Fear not, VW Busman, I don’t have a copyright to the word Ramblings—but I will offer it up as another one of those weird synchronicities between you and I, that is about 20 years asynchronous—nothing says the synchronicities have to be simultaneous). I was very much influenced by John Jerome’s Stonework, and William Heat Least Moon’s Blue Highways and PrairyErth. The big difference of course is that Jerome and Least Heat Moon are real writers, and I am a guy that works in a factory. Anyhow Ramblings Something never got really named because I never finished it, because I figured that it would have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting published. The fact that I passed it on to a recently published local author who returned it to me saying in a very polite sort of way that it was pure unadulterated shit probably influenced my decision as well.
Just because somebody sucks at something doesn’t necessarily diminish their desire to do it. So the chances of my book ever being published were next to none. But lo and behold Blogger! And it is free!. So now I can write to my heart’s content and hope that somebody reads it. Probably no one will, so what you do is put a lot of interesting images in your blog and hope that one of the 20 to 50 people who visit your blog daily searching for images may stop to read something. It happens about once a week. Not a huge audience, but still better than my non-published book. So the Internet not only allows you to search with ungodly efficiency, it allows you to voice your thoughts in a semi-permanent written form, no matter how crappy they are.
So what is my hope by writing a blog? VWBussman hopes to help people see and enjoy the simple pleasures in life, a goal that I share as well but probably not with the efficiency and earnestness that VWBussman has. Old Baguette wants to entertain us with the quirks of her extensive family and reform Catholicism. So what is my hope? I hope that once in a very blue moon, that someone somewhere in the world (and I do have a very world wide audience of image seekers) will stop for a moment while searching for their image and read something I wrote and savor it. Entertain and edify, just once in a very blue moon. I just want you to think “Wow, what a cool thought…too bad it is bullshit!”
PC Magazine, Google Doodle
If you have savored nothing else from this post today, go out and savor a sundae on this day, its 119th anniversary.
EDIT 4-6-11: I have found the perfect bumper sticker (well actually a tee-shirt) for myself, but I am going to get it in the coffee mug version and keep it next to my computer. "ESCHEW PROLIXITY" .
EDIT 7-25-2011 There is a very good Radiolab episode that considers how words affect our thinking.
Radiolab, August 09, 2009, Words
EDIT 5-30-2013 Here is an interesting article on what Google Images "sees" when an ABC word from a children's ABC book is searched. I tried "apple." Of the first 20 images displayed 10 were logos for Apple computer.
The Atlantic.com, Tech, 5-30-13, The Google ABC Book, Alexis C. Madrigal
Trillium and 918: Yours Truly
Google Doodle: Google
The Information, Book Cover, Random House
I ♥ NY, Thirteen Stars, WW1 Tank, Wikipedia