What We Talk About When We Talk About the Internet

Translations transfer meanings from one language into another. Metaphors and similes transfer and connect meanings between different linguistic contexts within a single language. But, as far as tropes go, the euphemism is much cheaper, a debased cousin. Euphemisms say one thing but mean another. The meaning of a metaphor or translation can be obscured, but their linguistic status is never in doubt. The euphemism, by contrast, always has an incredibly clear meaning, but only once you recognize it as euphemism. The euphemism is the lie that tells the truth. The euphemism is the criminal hidden in plain sight. The euphemism is the public secret.

You see the rise of euphemism reflected in the words and phrases used to describe Internet processes. Witness terms like “smart phone” and “social network.” Not unlike its linguistic predecessor “reality television,” “smart phone” works to undermine the very definition of both its words by creating an oxymoron which, with widespread usage and acceptance, models reality after itself by denuding the nature of the concept “smart” and exponentially increasing the power of the idea “phone.” This is not merely linguistic griping, this is a philosophical perversion that underlies the way we think about technology. The only thing David Fincher really achieves in his exploration of the birth of Facebook is to expose the euphemism behind the phrase “Social Network”. A “network” cannot possibly be social: as Zuckerberg’s crushing loneliness demonstrates. A network, by definition, is singular, an object not a subject; it is an articulation of discrete entities, nothing more than the sum of its parts. By embracing the euphemism we devalue hundreds of years of ideas about what constitutes the “social” while giving the “network” undue power. We attribute consciousness to the network itself—rather than to the people who constitute it—in the same way we attribute intelligence to the phone and the computer, in the same way that we say a brand has “identity” and a corporation has “personhood.” But when we personify objects, we objectify persons. The result is Orwellian. Social Network is a euphemism for Alienated Individuals; Smart Phone: Dumb Person.

It occurs to me that “Internet” has won out over “web” as the mot juste precisely because it is less descriptive, more euphemistic. Bits become electrical charges that excite small units of plasma which, arranged together, become a cat chasing a laser pointer. All information appears within the single context of the screen, and, more specifically, the browser window. Information on the Internet exists nowhere, actually, and everywhere at once, potentially. It is inert. It only exists when it is accessed. As such it is psuedo-linguistic: a language is considered “dead” when no one speaks it, which is to say, “accesses” it.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to describe Internet information as purely metaphorical, or worse still, purely linguistic. When accessed, Internet information actually does physically exist, though only for an instant as electrical impulses. We imagine, because it makes intuitive sense, that this information is stored as a sort of “computer language” and that the computer translates from “computerese” into a natural language for its users. However, the “computer language” from which it is translated does not exist. Translation (or metamorphosis) requires two end points: from Vulcan to Esparanto, say, or from Man to Cockroach. But the “computer language”, despite having reached such heights of complexity that no human could understand it without the machine itself, is not a language at all, merely instructions for a tool. Remember, the first “computer language” was “spoken” by punching holes into card stock. Translation and metamorphosis involve changing linguistic contexts while meaning remains unchanged. But the meaning of this sentence that I write now does not, cannot exist in computerese: the computer merely takes each key stroke as an instruction, and then represents my instructions back to me.

The complexity of this task—and the misunderstanding that results—is where euphemism enters. When I hit a nail with a hammer, I think: witness the power of my will! But when I google “How do I build a birdhouse?” it appears that I have asked Google a question and that it has answered. As though Google were a conscious entity, not the world’s most complex hammer. It it is almost too obvious for words: the information on the Internet is produced by people; the computer merely organizes and regurtitates this information (using algorithms produced, of course, by human beings.) What is euphemistic is our relationship to the interface of communication with this information. In the anonymous, uncontextualized space of the browser window, all information appears to come from one source: “the internet.” This illusion is part of the appeal of Wikipedia: that somehow on the internet all human ideas come together to be algorithmically averaged and translated into a truth larger than that available to the individual human.

Of course, most everyone, when challenged at a conscious level, will correct this mistake, and agree that no, Google only aggregates, it doesn’t think, that the Internet is just a compilation of human endeavors. But how often do you hear someone say something like “ask Google”, “Wikipedia says”, “Facebook told me…”? Before the Internet, there was no tool with which people interacted linguistically. Books, magazines and newspapers only provided one way communication: the computer responds to linguistic cues, it is built on programming “languages”, and as such appears to communicate with the user.

The computer is the liar that always tells the truth. If you believe the lie—that what the computer does is beyond human comprehension, that its power exceeds its use value—then you are doomed to be its slave. You could smash the screen you read this on right now with a mallet, you could melt your computer in acid, you could remove the keys with red hot pincers and it will be completely indifferent to the experience. Computers do not feel; nor do they reason, or interpret. They have no agency. Complexity is not consciousness.

Thus, to vilify or defend the Internet, or Blogs, or Facebook, or Twitter, etc., asresponsible in and of themselves for the noisy meaninglessness of our cultural discourse, for the polarization of our politics, or for the history-eschewing 24-hour news-cycle, is to lose the game before you start. It would be foolish to deny the role of social media in the current Arab uprisings, for example, but it is even more foolish to ascribe responsibility or agency to the sites or media platforms themselves.

Yet we make this latter mistake all the time. Ogle this New York Times headline: “Facebook and Youtube fuel the Egyptian Protests.” In discourse about the Internet, the object all too often becomes the subject, forcing the actual subjects themselves to disappear. What the protesters in Cairo understood, and what many Americans reading about them did not, is that the headline is actually, “Egyptians fighting for freedom find Facebook and Youtube useful tools.” Not as snappy, granted, but at least accurate. Facebook and Youtube cannot fuel anything. Does the sentence “Paint brush fuels production of Sistine Chapel” have any meaning whatsoever? Facebook and Twitter will never help free someone who believes it is possible that they could. Believe the lie, told by people, that the network has autonomous power, above and beyond the power of the people who built it and use it, and ideology—not the technology itself—will defeat you.

The point of all this, however, is not an impoverished discussion of medium critique. What is vitally important is to counter the conception that Internet technology arises from an apolitical, unideological vaccuum, the conception that science marches innocently onwards towards pure knowledge. Yet it is just this disastrous de-historicizing that the euphemismistic nature of the Internet protects: by hiding the extent to which humans are behind every flicker of the computer screen, euphemism hides the historical nature of the Internet.

In the cause of alienation and exploitation, the Internet has proven itself a wonderfully able tool. Netflix and filesharing replace brick and mortar record and video stores, greatly damage music companies large and small, and will soon do the same to Hollywood. Ignore the free-media utopians’ sleight-of-hand attacks on the products these companies make. Lumbering behemoths of cultural mediocrity? Undoubtedly. But they’re employers too; and those jobs aren’t coming back.

Meanwhile, Facebook users voluntarily reduce their identity into branding, their cultural experience into conspicuous consumption, and the notion of friendship to the click of a link, all of which is processed and sold to advertisers at tiny expense for incredibly precise demographic targeting. Email reduces use of the USPS, defunding local post offices and legitimating huge cuts to one of the federal government’s only benevolent programs (remember last year when they proposed ending Saturday mail delivery?) and you better believe those cuts mean middleclass mailmen and women losing their jobs and falling into poverty. We’re using more oil, more paper, and, despite increased automation and skyrocketing profits, we’re working more hours for less pay than ever before. That is, if we’re lucky enough to still have a job.

But these results were never inevitable. Facebook’s alienating powers are not an inevitable end of the site’s design (see: Egypt), anymore than the ascension of modern social media platforms is an inevitable result of people communicating online, anymore than the Internet is an inevitable result of the atom bomb.

Each and every step in technological evolution is produced and managed by people, and, more substantially, the governments, companies and systems that pay them. The very complexity of this change can make these eminently human forces invisible, hidden euphemistically behind the “apolitical” historical narrative of “science.” Without a disavowal of the euphemisms obscuring the Internet’s nature, we will never be sufficiently prepared to cut wheat from chaff, take the good from this magnificent tool and discard the bad. It may be that the Internet will be a vital part of producing a better world; it may be that destroying it is a prerequisite to such a world’s creation. But as long as we understand the Internet euphemistically, when we use it we will only be restricting ourselves.