Why the more data we collect the less likely we are to know what it means? The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan’s noticing 50 years ago the presence of “an acoustic world,” one with “no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis,” a new “information environment of which humanity has no experience whatever.” He published “Understanding Media” in 1964, proceeding from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Media were to be understood as “make-happen agents” rather than as “make-aware agents,” not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.
The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s googling, an afternoon’s shopping, an evening’s tweeting constitutes the guarantee of being in the know. Among people who worship the objects of their own invention — money, cloud computing, the Super Bowl — the technology can be understood, in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Better to consume it, best of all to buy it, and to the degree that information can be commodified (as corporate logo, designer dress, politician custom-fitted to a super PAC) the amassment of wealth and the acquisition of power follows from the labeling of things rather than from the making of them.
“The true catastrophe of Babel,” says Steiner, “is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues… Anglo-American standardized vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and “the imperatives of commercial greed.”
Every age is an age of information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture, encrypted code or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that drift across the surface of the human face.
It [Internet] scans everything but hears nothing, as tone-deaf as the filtering devices maintained by a search engine or the Pentagon, processing words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects.