(A review on a Yale MOOC (massively open, online course) for Global Literature. We can instantly recognize the writing as rather poorly executed, but what can the style tell us about the content? I would be willing to bet our author is a fan of recent Canadian pseudo-intellectuals whose name rhymes with "Lordan Cleterson.")

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I was reading through a friend’s copy of The New Yorker this past evening, several of the stories focused on the various ways we have become “beholden to our screens,” that the tentacles of technology have absorbed (derailed? subsumed? replicated in vitro?) our public attention.

It wasn’t the theme I was paying attention to–the theme that machines are eating humanity, or our humaneness perhaps, is nothing new. The author of this piece even referenced one of the oldest pieces on this line of thinking: EM Forster’s 1909 story «The Machine Stops». (Which, for the record, is a beautiful story–just far-fetched enough to be sci-fi today, with a delicious retro flavor imparted through the use of pneumatic tubes to send letters on occasion. Oh, and airships. No story ever suffered from a surplus of airships. Also, the fact it is 110 years old is by itself astounding.)

But while the theme is so common as to become a shadow of a cliché, I wondered about something else: the language used to discuss such notions such that they become clichés.

Namely, my thinking went like this:
Has there been a convergence, perhaps attributable to the digital age, in the language we use to describe the world around us? That is, a rise in the commonality of cliché, if that is not a tautology.

The experiment could work like this:
[1] With a digital database of all New Yorker articles from the past hundred years (or so, depending on availability, the key is that we predate the digital revolution by a couple of decades)
[2] Use some complex word recognition software, like Google’s nGram Viewer or something, to see if the instance of shared phrases between different authors has become more common.
[3] Run results against a random sampling of English articles (for comparison) and see what shows up.
 

Of course, we could improve this by letting more than one publication in, as perhaps The New Yorker has a certain ‘style bias’ that leads to a similarity of tone in all articles regardless (there is a certain “sound” to New Yorker articles, to read articles about The New Yorker outside of The New Yorker).

This is not something I am certain about, nor even clear on what question to ask in order for such a project to begin (the first step is knowing what to ask–that is, discovering some unknown unknowns so that they become known unknowns and can then be, through research and work, made known).

But has the digital revolution, and the speed and ease of (primarily linguistic here) communication across it made our speech/writing more similar? Are there forming new mega-cultures shaped by this sort of mass-participation-media, particularly the ‘social media’ cyberscape?

What this would be evidence of, that is to be decided at a later date. Maybe we are all becoming more alike? More intertwined, and thus tolerant? Although that argument feels hard to make given current resurgences of fascist ideologues and hate-filled politicians the world over.

Or perhaps we are becoming part of that feared hive-mind: society. Imprisoned by language we didn’t choose; that no one chose the language, and yet here we are, bound by the soft chains of historical precedent.

Just an evening thought. If it ever goes anywhere, I’ll try to remember to update this post!