The viral circulation of the “Did you know” video about “living in exponential times” shows no signs of abating. It does capture something of an Information Society Zeitgeist, but it contains several premises and claims that are worth critiquing. (You can view the video below my rant about it here.)
“Exponential times”: A spectre haunts the video’s premise: that of the technological singularity — a hypothetical point of cybernetic development beyond which the machines become self-aware and rapidly accelerate the pace and scale of technological change. (See Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.) The implications of this premise will be clarified in what follows.
“There are 5x as many English words as in Shakespeare’s time”: This is specious, as historicizing goes, but it’s of a piece with the video’s unproblematized and fetishized keyword, Information. (On which more soon.) It’s specious because it serves the contemporary picture being sketched at the cost of historical knowledge. For starters, there was neither spelling as we know it nor dictionaries in Shakespeare’s time, and it’s only after such institutions arise that language becomes standardized and quantifiable. Moreover, the polysemy (multiplicity of meaning) and rich resonance of vocabulary in Elizabethan English scrambles the attempt to quantify it anyway: what does it mean to count 5 times as many words in modern English when their meanings are generally so much narrower and less ambiguous than in Shakespeare’s time? (“Ejaculation” is a great example of a formerly multiple-meaning word now confied to one very specific meaning…and one that will probably draw trolls to this blog.)
“A week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century”: Similarly specious ‘historicizing’ is at work here, more clearly tied to the video’s major keyword, Information. What is Information, exactly? My favourite answer is Dr. Susan Brown’s economical definition: “Information is a fantasy.” That is, it’s a way to describe knowledge that presumes that the data exists distinctly from its interpretation, with “the problematic
implication that such raw perceptual input can actually be separated from the work of signification” (Terranova 287). In a relatively rigorous historicizing exercise, Shunya Yoshimi reads the hegemonic quantifiability of Information as a development integral to capitalism and instrumental to state militaries:
The generalization of the information concept from a specialized military term to a concept of broad social application occurred during the period when society as a whole became militarized in the 1930s and 1940s. With the development of systematic information theory and the spread of computers in society, the military associations of the information concept gradually became obscured. It thus took on the appearance of an inherently neutral and universal concept.
Yoshimi concludes that “we must be vigilant about exactly what is happening in the conceptualization process when diverse phenomena are categorized and highlighted as forms of ‘information’” (277). Given the “Did you know” video’s presumption of an Anglo-American audience and its preoccupation with the global Others of that audience — namely, India and China — Yoshimi’s is a significant caution. The “singularity” conjured in the video is none Other than the combined forces of English language learning and tech-sector development in these nations, a spectre of outsourcing and cultural appropriation, both of which the video implies are threats to the employment and identity of US citizens. The spectre of the technological singularity that underwrites this particular ‘fantasy of information,’ then, is a menacing hybrid (a “scandalous body,” to borrow Smaro Kamboureli’s term) manufactured of cybernetic and exotically racialized components. That the implied threat to Anglo-American cultural identity is actually advanced rather than countered by the video’s specious exercises in historical contrasts between early modern and “exponential times” is perhaps the text’s crowning irony.
Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2000.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005.
Terranova, Tiziana. “The Concept of Information.” Theory, Culture and Society 23.2 (2006): 286-87.
Yoshimi, Shunya. “Information.” Theory, Culture and Society 23.2 (2006): 271-78.