Monday, September 30, 2013

Dead Languages and Online Discourse

The Internet has revolutionized our lives. This we know. The larger trends we are all aware of and need no further elaboration here. They’ve been picked apart and scrutinized constantly and will continue to be. Underneath the obvious observations are some of the more fascinating permutations and combinations. For fifteen years, I’ve been inspired and, in equal measure, challenged by the promise and problems of an online existence.

My partner notes that I am always reading. I usually define reading as having my nose stuck in a bound collection of paper and ink called a book. Yet, when I thought of the observation more closely, I found I had to amend my definition of what reading is. In this context, I don’t mean Kindles or other electronic devices meant to simulate their paper counterparts. Instead, I mean a less linear, more fragmented way of receiving data.

My work as a freelancer insists that I daily take in a vast amount of information. Background research of interview subjects requires reading. Considering which sources to cite in a written piece requires reading. Scanning to see what others have written about the same topic or person I’m about to profile requires reading. At minimum, I estimate that I probably read upwards of fifty pages a day, though not all at once, of course.

It’s not all work and no play. Often, I read online for pleasure because of my own fascination with a topic, alongside a voracious desire to learn. I love knowledge and the Internet contains multiple perspectives and much that is engrossing. One link leads to another, and another, and another. Still, I don’t think an online exchange of ideas will displace my desire for the printed word.

I’ve segmented and separated the printed word from the electronic. Each has its own function, one very different from the other. Reading, the old fashioned way, distracts me on public transportation or keeps the boredom away while in the waiting room of a doctor. It’s become a routine at bedtime, as it is for many. I am less enthusiastic about reading now largely because of grad school. Back then, I literally read three to four very dry, very academic books a week, and as many as fifteen for each course.

Since then, I’ve found reading often to be a chore. In a bad habit I picked up at school, I have a tendency to try to rush through the text and only focus on the main ideas. This was the only way to survive with the demands school placed upon me, and I did it because I had no other choice. Nevertheless, I regret that it partially ruined a pleasurable pastime I’d maintained since childhood.

There’s something inherently more comfortable to me about the asymmetric manner of online information gathering. I find precisely what words and phrases I need, pluck them from the source, and then insert them where needed. In an introductory journalism class in undergrad, I learned the logic as to how columns in a newspaper are written. The lead, the first paragraph, is the most crucial and deliberate aspect to a story, since most people read the first two paragraphs of any article and then skip to something else.

Nowadays, of course, newspapers are fighting to stay alive, but the basic premise is the same and continues in online discourse. The purists will always be fearful that we will fail to appreciate anything more than a soundbyte and a synopsis. I take their criticism seriously, but moral panics like these are sometimes short on facts and long on fears. The English language is a living language. Because we are part of it, the words, phrases, and idioms change constantly. Some persist and some outlive their usefulness and are discarded.

Every so often, a person or group worries that the language of William Shakespeare is being sullied by slang and vulgarity. English ought to be spoken properly, they assert. For them, there are right ways and wrong ways of pronunciation and sentence structure. Each effort to standardize a native tongue usually fails, mostly because language is too fluid and changeable.  

In our day, print content and online content need to find a happy medium. Both have merit, but they appeal to very different sensibilities. I don’t think that returning to the past is a tenable solution. Neither do I believe that online communication is automatically anyone’s panacea. Like language, each will change. Every year, new words and phrases enter the dictionary as other are removed. Only dead languages and methods of communication don’t routinely shed their skins and emerge reborn.

No comments: