On the Road

by kiminogomi

In short: instructions directed to computers specify courses; instructions directed to human beings specify goals. . . . Who, for example, would depart from Boston for Los Angeles with a detailed specification of the route? — JCR Licklider

The problem with Licklider’s analogy between machine and human language is that his definition of language appears to be based not on speech but on writing, and a very specific mode of writing at that: one that is in essence a set of directions. His analogy of the route reveals the heart of the problem. In a work of fiction, it is all about the journey, not the destination.

Writing is a late development in human language, and a radically impoverished one in terms of the very important dimensions of context and tone. Not that writing cannot communicate context and tone; but in order to do so its user must have an advanced competence, an enlarged lexicon, and a rhetorical awareness. For this reason, until recently writing was an elitist activity: only a relatively small number of “power users” were capable of using it really effectively.

Electronic media, I would like to argue, are at the same point of development as writing was in eighteenth-century Europe. We are still enmeshed in the eternal September that began in the nineteen nineties. Distribution mechanisms (in those days, the printing press and paper; today, devices and connections) may become less expensive and more accessible, but most end users are still relatively low-powered. They are newbies, not experts, in other words.

The solution arrived at by the printed word was the invention of new delivery modes, journalism and the novel. These modes required a degree of literacy, but they did not require the writer to have the kind of education that at the time was only available to privileged males. Through print modes, writing developed a stylistic repertory that built upon rhetorical devices inherited from classical texts, while becoming demotic enough to be open to loan words and various dialects and dictions (many borrowed from the relatively vulgar comic plays of the day). Using the full lexicon of spoken Englishes, the novel and journalism became widely available as modes. However, writers were now dependent on printers (who also performed the roles of publishers), just as today’s electronic artists depend on technology designers and distributors. The printer who was also a writer could control his own work up to the point of distribution, although no copyright laws yet existed to protect the published text — and he was a he, because few women owned printshops. William Blake, printer and engraver, produced his radical and beautiful books in this way. But Blake was an exception in many ways, too radical for his own era. The market supported a typical capitalist solution: separation of the creative career from the productive, of the author from the publisher, while printer became for the most part a mere manual job. By the twentieth century, the codex had become highly uniform, illustrations and other hybrid manifestations had been pushed to the margins, and a normative discourse of “genre” ensured that journalism became mainly content-oriented and that truly creative novels like Finnegan’s Wake, texts that sought to broaden the options beyond traditional narrative etc., were oddities. The modes became fixed, and the novel was repeatedly declared dead even as it simultaneously became the most marketable and lucrative form of print object.

How will electronic media solve the problem of widespread literacy and open creativity? How will they develop a rhetoric, a set of techniques, an access to mode of production, that will allow us to combine and remake electronic modes and tools, rather than simply using them? Or will technology remain either an elite object or a mere commodity, a tool for producing more consumable content?