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Twitter and Newspeak

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Wednesday, Feb 4, 2009

Yves Smith pauses from financial blogging to explain why she is skeptical of Twitter, which she likens to Orwell’s Newspeak. First of all, if you haven’t read the appendix to 1984, you should. The principle of Newspeak is to control how people think by emptying out the language they use for thinking. Orwell imagines some of the technical means for this would be to restrict vocabulary and simplify grammar to the point where complex thought cannot be conveyed and unorthodox thought is impossible for want of the words. (It’s reminiscent of the alleged house style at Bloomberg, where the word “but” is banned.) Smith quotes this passage (among others): “And it was to be foreseen that with the passage of time the distinguishing characteristics of Newspeak would become more and more pronounced—its words growing fewer and fewer, their meanings more and more rigid, and the chance of putting them to improper uses always diminishing.” Twitter, which emulates some of the salient features of Newspeak, is of course perfect for advertising—if you have to stop to think about what’s being said, the persuasion has probably failed. But the most insidious aspect of it is how it encourages us to speak in slogans and catchphrases, to eschew logical exposition of our thoughts for a quick, allusive declaration.


Smith suggests Twitter is a technological means by which we voluntarily adopt Newspeak out of impatience with more complicated modes of discourse. Using herself as an example, she writes,


I notice how the Internet has affected how I read. I have become impatient with longer stories (unless I am on an airplane). I spend most of my time on the Internet, and the vast majority of what I read fits within the browser window. I find that has conditioned my expectations. When confronted with a longer piece (say Sunday New York Times magazine feature or New Yorker length) I find after the first page wondering if it really had to be this long, and often not finishing the piece. Five years ago, I never would have responded this way.
You can’t say anything complicated or nuanced in 140 characters. I am sure readers will provide some cute counterexamples, but try explaining Plato’s cave in those confines. Can’t be done. You might allude to it, but you could not present it to someone who didn’t know about it already. And Twitter encourages people to accept a medium that severely constrains communication, and calls a defect a virtue.


I have noticed a similar transformation in myself. It takes me much more effort to concentrate on longer pieces, and I have to print them out to have any chance. In front of a computer, my mind is always considering the alternatives, almost after each sentence I read. Smith points out how this impatience spreads to interpersonal relations:


It’s one thing to take calls, check texts tweets, or the news when out and about by yourself. But it has become the norm to take them when meeting with others. That reduces the quality of the interaction and sends a message that the person you are with is merely an option, other options are ever present and must be assessed, maybe exercised…. Twitter feeds that addiction, that false sense of urgency. Most things can wait. Indeed, a lot of things are better off waiting. But we are encouraged to be plugged in, overstimulated all the time, at the expense of higher quality human relations.


Higher quality human relations take work, patience, effort to build trust and reciprocity, but they also seem to be the bedrock of human happiness. It’s no wonder that the institutions of consumerism undermine those relations and offer fruitless shortcuts to intimacy that ultimately leave us dependent on technology and products that accelerate our ability to consume in search of personal meaning but never resolve our inner emptiness.


Twitter is supposed to facilitate our relationships by providing “ambient awareness” of the lives of others, but it seems more a way of persuading us to provide a constant stream of information about ourselves to those sureveilling us. In a sense, it ceases to be communication in any conventional sense; instead it reduces communication to the bleeps of a homing beacon. Twitter is a way to become one’s own voluntary RFID tag.

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