Thursday, November 20, 2008

Com Vs. Code: A Look Into the Future

“Communication Versus Codes:
A Look Into the Near Future”

Pulitzer insisted on plain prose and established it as standard, to reach the masses. Were, then, prior newspapers and their verbosity aimed to miss the masses?

Did wading through them drag general literacy up? Certainly the average person today can’t make sense of newspapers from yesterday. The virtue of being immediately understood degraded the urge to accomplish more complex and subtle reading.

This means clarity is a mixed blessing and that there can be a use for, and gains to be had by, being indirect.

Was putting plain prose into daily print what allowed American vernacular finally to be allowed into, and viewed as, literature?

Oral tradition predates literary tradition. Speech comes before writing. Returning writing to a speaker’s syntax offers powerful advantages. It shatters the chains of formalism and allows a wider range of topics and voices into literary culture. However, stating things simply seems to have tended to drag thinking into simplicity, too. This is a loss.

It’s evident mass literacy has a major impact on literary culture, forcing it toward plain prose. What is less evident is the impatience plainness plants in us for subtlety and complexity of thought. Cut to the chase, we say; give us the gist, and keep it stupidly simple.

It is perhaps predictable that there is an academic backlash against plain prose. It insists that abstract, fancy prose is superior.

Is this protective snobbery covering up the fact that straightforward prose can accomplish everything maze-like prose can, and more? Or is it an acknowledgment of all the grace notes and lesser points we’ve lost to bluntness?

A debate rages. It’s about clarity of thought and expression versus protection of turf. One group states that complex, layered, even convoluted thoughts can be expressed simply, even if doing so requires sequential presentation with successive points built upon. Another advocates a more oblique approach, claiming that only via cumulative side points can the main point become a worthwhile summation. Ephemeral values must be kept safe at the heart of a tangled garden of words.

Academic prose is but bad taste, say some. It cries for citation and stifles originality. Conformity is academia’s way of clinging to a hollow relevance. Obfuscation is the ivy-covered tower’s refuge for pseudo intellectuals. It is an attempt to exclude the masses in favor of snobbery.

Another group asks, if writing is communicative, should it not be inclusive? Does not democratic idealism require a literature understandable by all? Is not fostering isolated elitism and specialism just another way of shutting down communication?

What of vocabulary? Are big words snobbish? Are plain words always better? How can one choose the right word, and by whose standards, on what scale?

Eschew obfuscation, or be brief? Is concise the same as short, though? Is not the sum of some words greater than the summation of their component parts?

Both sides create extremes. Opposite Dr. Seuss one finds Finnegans Wake. Faulkner called Hemingway a dolt and mocked his 400-word vocabulary. Dickens wrote fat books concisely while Hawthorne wrote as if paid by the run-on sentence. Hugo wrote pages of words that cannot be diagrammed into sentences while Robbe-Grillet wrote lists.

Ideals duel. Invisible prose squares off against the paragraph as sculpture. Deconstructionists sneer at the notion that the writer can know what he or she meant by what’s written, while cyberpunks go binary in a street rebellion of electronic tagging.

Communication fights Codes. Some want any reader to be able to understand, others want only prepared audiences to have a chance to extract hidden meaning.

Both extremes use words like masks.

Masks both hide and show. They conceal and reveal at the same time. What you choose to mask, and what kind of mask you choose, reveal hidden things, even as they cover up others.

On the individual scale, it is a matter of taste. An impatience with gallimaufry and drawn out manipulation leads to a preference for clean, clear prose. An enjoyment of immersion and a fascination with involvement leads to a preference for more baroque writing.

On a social scale, however, a balance must be struck between the blunt and the fine. Intelligence and information thrive, or wither, through presentation. A lecture delivered in rudimentary language may fail to impart anything, while verbosity and high verbal skills applied to a kindergarten lesson may simply baffle.

Consider your audience, journalists are told. Write for the reader. Even in fiction, if you stray too far from reader expectations, reader interest is lost. Sales decline. Publishers move on to someone else.

When Pulitzer focused on reaching the masses, his agenda was to sell more newspapers than Hearst, yes, but his ulterior motive was political. He wanted to move things his way.

Rather than address the well-educated ruling class, he aimed at the semi-educated working class. He went native, in a way, so his influence would be delivered in their everyday language.

Writing fiction sways between giving readers what they want -- diversion and entertainment -- and expressing the writer’s concerns -- personal and political obsessions. It balances between journalism and fine art.

Journalism influenced fiction writing more than the reverse due to numbers. More people read newspapers than fiction.

Today, that may not be true. Today, the news delivery systems of choice are the internet and TV, especially TV comedians. TV news has lost luster due to a shift from informing to entertaining. Drawing an audience matters more than informing the public, so demographics surveys and playing to perceived audience bias slants news away from objective information and toward propaganda. People respond by turning elsewhere.

When an event becomes known, people are apt now to jump online. There they can find multiple sources, from reliable to crazy. They can sift out their own version of what happened from multiple views.

Today’s fiction delivery systems of choice are movies and TV shows. Books that most closely resemble the movie or TV series experience sell best. This includes franchise fiction based on established story lines such as Star Wars and Star Trek.

So audiovisual media are the biggest influence on literature today. Literary culture is, in fact, merging with AV culture in the form of computer games. Video games often provide detailed story lines even more developed than those found in Victorian novels. Reading itself may become obsolete when AV interfaces replace the keyboard model on handheld devices. Replacing the device with implanted subcutaneous chips is a next logical phase, even as WiFi replaces wire and thermal and light sourced power generation replaces batteries and alternating current generators.

It is not far-fetched to envision individuals in the near future mentally involved with a world-spanning web of internet-based sub-realities, pocket universes, and sites without spatial locale. They will have instant global communication and awareness. They will be able to store information for later perusal, or tap into any information source needed, or find someone to help them.

Even then there will no doubt be those favoring code over com. They will seek to corral sectors of the mind-web for private projects or just for the sake of secrecy and criminality. The two may end up being equated.

Privacy, being a half-brother to secrecy, may also end up being equated with criminality, or antisocial tendencies at least. So may ownership, property, and notions of control.

Symbolic behavior, symbols, and other abstractions may end up being the last refuge of individualism. At that point communication will have won, or enclaves of Luddites will have developed to reject technology’s changes. Clinging won’t help, though.

Change, being the only constant, favors open communication.

Knowing this, it becomes obvious that plain prose and clear thought are positive, while obfuscation, obscuritanism, and contrary concealment must be seen as negative, in terms of both individual and social progress.

Aspects of this have the potential to become fascist. Frightened conformists seek to control what they cannot understand. Despite any such setbacks, it looks as if open communication will ultimately prevail.

Right now there is no need to make such harsh choices. Right now there is room for utopia and dystopia. It may not be long, though, before how we communicate breaks the code of human nature and allows us to live as one seething, incredibly varied, and powerful organism.

The fearful will speak of hive mind. The unafraid will see it as a step toward being spiritually united.

All this from how we read and write.

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