August 10, 2020
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The Muse In The Machine

As technology refashions the world, will language perish to the techno-geeks? Or is it the birth of a new literary canon?

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The Muse In The Machine

Technological advancement, it seems, entails a certain effacement as well. It's not just a mere evolution of traditional forms and ways of living and thinking, but rather a mutation of sorts. And in an era of all-pervasive technology, language cannot but be affected as well. If calculators ruined our ability to do mental arithmetic, computers and word processors are affecting spellings, sentence structures, spontaneity and, ultimately, the quality of prose. That's no conservative, anti-technological cliche - a cursory glance at journalistic pieces written as early as the '80s might well reveal a character, an individualism, an elegance in the quality of the prose that modern 'keyboard writing' seems somewhat bereft of. One had a sense of the subtleties, ironies and ambiguities of language, an awareness the advent of PCs and word processors seems to have laid to everlasting rest.

What gives any piece of writing its force is the spontaneity with which the first draft is made. With word processors, there are constant jarring reminders in the form of red and green lines highlighting the "spelling and grammatical errors". But then, with the software written by some technogeek, it's only logical that the in-built grammar and spell check become incapable of expanding its vocabulary or understanding something called poetic license. However on seeing the red and green lines, a writer almost compulsively hits the F7 (spelling and grammar check) key, mostly only to instruct the machine to "ignore" the alternatives. The problem doesn't end there. Once the copy is ready, the machine admonishes the writer for using the passive voice, for writing long sentences and it even gives readability statistics. The core of these statistics is comprised of characters per word; words per sentence and percentage of passive sentences. Based on these parameters, the machine judges the prose level on two scales: the Flesch Reading Ease level and Flesh-Kincaid Grade level. Predictably, in this readability gradient only Enid Blyton scores and major writers fail miserably.

According to anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan, if the Internet represents the celebratory chaos of cyberspace, the computer as word processor has all the makings of a linguistic corset. Says he: "Computers today come equipped with a gauntlet of dictionaries, spell checks, thesaurus and readability quotients. They become a procrustean bed trimming every essay into a troop of well-cropped sentences. What began as a search for functional clarity became a standardised domain of language." However, computers do have their supporters. Says S. Rangarajan alias Sujatha, a computer technocrat and prolific writer in Tamil, "I have been using word processors for the last 20 years and it did not impinge on my creativity. Whenever there is a paradigm shift, there is also an associated resistance to change. The entire critique of the word processor stems from that."

One might say that basically a computer is fine when it comes to a business letter, but the danger arises when we insist that a Dostoevsky, Ezra Pound, or a Rushdie should sound like a business letter. But the real fear is of an indirect policing where any unusual usage of a word or experimentation is elided out. Language might be called a constant form of experimentation and yet, the checks we build into a computer produce more political correctness than all the Reagans put together.

What one needs to understand then, is the relation between the machine and language as technology. As Visvanathan points out, language is one of the greatest of technologies programmed by grammar. But there is a free play between grammar and language, a dialectic of inventiveness and discipline. A computer's sense of language, on the other hand, can only be mechanical. But Sujatha rejects this argument: "Spelling or grammar checks are in the computer only as a tool. One can just remove that function from the computer and continue one's creative work," she says. But then, a computer like any other machine, despite being an aid, is also a system of de-skilling whereby answers can be had at the push of a button. And when it comes to a computer's supervision of language, the correctness might remain but a certain vitality is lost. "Talk of Dante and Hell and all the computer produces is a thermometer. Take a Pynchon, a Joyce or an Ezra Pound and feed them into your computer and it will see red. These are the criminals of language who need to be reduced to the homogeneity of monochromatic citizenship," says Visvanathan.

Added to this is the view that technology is reducing language to mere instrumentality. An independent, autonomous space for language is replaced by a functionality that conforms to political correctness that both officialdom and populism demand. The computer only reflects the ideologies of the time. The technocracy wants a transparent language that it can police and patrol easily, anything that smacks of myth, metaphor or utopia is seen as dissenting and refractory. "Our modes of work and leisure demand a hurrying through language. We don't want to be delayed, ambushed or deceived by language. We want language to hurry along with our lives. The mass media caters to our limited attention spans with its so-called use of racy language," declares Visvanathan.

According to poet and critic Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a professor at iit Delhi whose area of research is cognitive linguistics, one way to measure the vitality of a 'technological revolution' is to observe how it affects the language of everyday use. Says she: "Just think of how a vocabulary like dotcoms, https, wwws, cybernauts and virtual reality have proliferated today, especially among the young, who will be the carriers of these terms into culture." The defenders of technology argue that every new technology brings in its wake a new genre of narrative. The rise of the novel has also been linked to the 15th century Gutenberg printing revolution. Will computer technologies similarly generate some new literary genres in the 21st century? And what would be the nature of such a genre? "I think the revival of letter-writing via email - what used to be called the epistolary form, already heralds one such neo-literary genre. Interactive writing, where readers' comments influence the shape of a text as it is being made, is another possibility," observes Nair.

While fears of automatic story-generators churning out literature as envisaged by Roald Dahl might be unfounded yet, it remains a chilling prospect. One can only shudder to imagine a blending of Homer and Rushdie or a Kenneth Starr report with Oedipus Rex. One anagram of the 'wired' societies of the future is 'weird'. And for Nair, as long as weirdness and originality in writing is preserved and augmented by the new technologies, they are good enough for literary communities. But technologies can radically change the environment in which writers produce texts and readers peruse them. Nair points out one of the possible readings for "The three little pigs" story in the techno-environment. It may be read as a story about how brick houses are better than those made of sticks or straw, which easily succumb to the ravages of nature, symbolised by the big bad wolf who huffs and puffs and blows a house down!

Nair sees a similarity between writers and technology as both create virtual worlds. Says she: "Writers too call virtual worlds into existence. It is here that writing and other technologies converge, in their imaginative extension of the physical boundaries of the self. Of course, such extensions can prove dangerous but this is a risk that inevitably accompanies all human inventiveness." But the problem with technology is that every transgression it makes possible has its boundaries drawn and strictly controlled by specialists. The various in-built tools of the computer render language monochromatic. Says Shiv Visvanathan, "Here language becomes a road one drives through rather than a circus, a carnival, a commons, a cuisine, a cookbook, a cacophony of meanings."

However, there seems to be a consensus on one crucial issue: that the inroads made by the computer are changing the contours of prose. According to Rukun Advani, who till recently was with the oup, this change is operating at three levels. One is the emergence of a new vocabulary, wherein a new language is expanding and 'shrinking' an older one. Words are being replaced, new words are taking over older ones. Two, there are linguistic changes in syntax. The way people use words and structure sentences is perhaps also changing. Three, there are the changes in terms of structure, concept and grammar that are deployed for syntax and vocabulary. Says he: "The intellection of writing is formed by vocabulary and the changes here also need to be looked at. Also, the new technology is changing the way people think. In that, in a fundamental sense, the concept of language is changing." Writer and academic Mukul Kesavan observes two changes from his experience. Says he: "One is that I tend to use longer sentences while on a word processor than when I hand-write. Then, in terms of editing or assessing what's been written, technology seems to make us fiddle more rather than rewrite entire drafts."

Shakepeare, it's been pointed out, wrote all he did with a feather. But today, one can only wonder about the fate of novels like James Joyce's Ulysses, Rushdie's Satanic Verses or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow if textual editing is going be dependent on the word processor? Despite word processors can such wordsmiths still happen? Or will they be ghettoised into the 'simple, reading ease ensured' prose? Then again, one of the biggest computer-induced standardisations currently happening in the English language is the pre-eminence of American spellings. From the joy of a multitude of 'Englishes', will we, one day end up having just one English designed by Bill Gates and team?

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