A tweet was heard from top of the tallest branch of a tree in the Catskills.
Was it irl or url?
Was it sung with a resonant cheep, echoing out and rippling down the forest?
Was it melancholic? Was it sweet?
Or was it sung songlessly, in 140 characters or less?
To whom did the bird tweet?
To its mate? To its prey? To its cluster of babies waiting safely at home?
Or was it directed at everyone? Or no one in particular?
Or to a ubiquitous flock of passive ears, glazed over with hyperstimulation.
And the bird’s body:
Was it feathered? Was it punctuated by a beak?
Or was it bodiless. Was it a virtual surrogate for something it once referred to.
Something it once remembered it was.
Digital Pictographs and the Post-Media Epoch
When I first saw the shrug emoticon, I thought ah yes, finally, a sweet little man who encapsulates a feeling of blissful indifference. A geniusly simple new tool with which to respond to any and all messages. Housemate: “Samantha, where did all of the brie cheese and Cinnamon Toast Crunch go?” Me: “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Or, Friend: “I’m genuinely concerned about your wellbeing.” Me: “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” It was an aha moment: a cure-all for tricky social situations. With the shrug emoji, you can say I don’t care at the same time as I’m sorry at the same time as I give up. You can respond without truly responding, saying everything and nothing at the same time. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this enigmatic symbol was a symptom of something larger. It represented a contemporary mood – an appetite for speed and succinct ambivalence.
We who live now, in this cultural moment, are visual creatures. We are constantly breaking down linguistic conventions in order to modify – in order to simplify. Living in a post-media age, we are antsy. We have to sit with our hands under our butts in a futile effort to quell our insatiable hunger for information. More than information, though, we crave immediacy. The message that we wait for is thus less meaningful than the speed and platform through which it is transmitted. A ubiquitously received sliver of information has far more worth in our contemporary culture than a more comprehensive yet less widely circulated story.
Our collective consciousness seems to have morphed into a system operating under pictographs. Pictures that we find on the internet – especially memes, vines, and emoticons – hold this unspoken power over us. Why? Because they conform to our digital orientation and appease our impatience for prolonged cognitive processing. These picture-based messages work because of their density and their speed. Collapsing a three-dimensional thought into a compacted, electronically propelled unit of information, the modern age pictograph not only has the reductive visual literacy to be understood within seconds of reception, but also has the digital fluidity to instantaneously spread among millions. Because of their dialectic ease and cultural motility, these picture-based information cells have become pervasive in our society. Not only are we constantly wading through a perpetual newsfeed of these graphics, but we are so established, so utterly entrenched in them, that they have manifested in our cultural vernacular.
Essentially, the shorthand hieroglyphic language of the digital age has developed a symbiotic relationship with organic human parlance. Both feed into each other to create a hybrid language: a dialect that weaves together memes, popular vines, and buzzwords into a referential tapestry. We feel comfortable quoting and paraphrasing the pulp of the internet because we know the strength of its omnipresence. We know that when we say “fade out of pic,” “get you a man who can do both,” or “Damn Daniel,” our words are carrying more impact than they appear to at face value. Derived from memes, they act as signifiers which stand for larger concepts and implications. For example, we know that when we say “Netflix and chill,” we’re not just talking about movie watching and relaxation. We’re talking about inviting a love interest over to fool around under the false pretense of casual “chilling.” When we speak in a referential language of metonyms, we sign an unspoken contract that our words are gestures of culture: they are symptoms of our high speed digital epoch.
But this isn’t new. We as a human race have been amending and abbreviating since the beginning of time. We can modify because language is plastic: it ebbs and morphs in order to correlate with the current cultural temperature. It changes with us because we change it: we project our ideologies and needs onto it and, in return, we are granted this human text which varies by social makeup and is used as a tool of belonging; those who understand a text, belong in a particular subculture. This is the framework in which we are taught to understand ourselves: through the signs and symbols of our contemporaries and the media we consume, we place ourselves into like-minded social spheres. This has been and always will be. But what is changing now – what is so new to this moment – is our reliance on language altogether – or maybe our lack thereof.
In this post-media age, data is profuse and it is unavoidable. It seeps into our lives through our phones, our computers – when we want it and when we don’t. We, therefore, must filter. We have to become efficient. By reducing information to pictographic data bytes, we can sift more easily through the pulp of contemporary life. At the flash of a digital image, we can determine whether we “get” or do not “get” the content: we assess if it pertains to us or not. The collective social mood of this contemporary moment is thus one of hyper-visual absorption. The almost post-lingual world we have crafted for ourselves is a consequence of the speed we crave. It is a symptom of a people whose cultural metabolisms are fast: we consume fast because data is propelled fast.
This mode of speech, however, not only expedites our ability to absorb knowledge, but it also accelerates the speed at which we assess our peers: those who belong to the same social sphere as we. When we hear a meme or pop-cultural reference that we understand, we feel privy to insider information. We feel in on it – in on a cultural allusion and thus connected to the community that endorses it. In other words, our societal idiom operates on a “those who know, know” mechanism. We use our dialectic shorthand not only to rapidly circulate information, but to socially evaluate our cultural allies and enemies. Just like our primitive ancestors who lived millions of years ago, we learn to trust people based on their likeness to ourselves. When we have a pop-cultural text like we have today – one which assumes a certain level of social awareness, digital literacy, and general hipness – we use it as a judgment device. It allows us to measure the relatability among social spheres.
In other words, one who might “darn you to all heck” might potentially experience a disharmony with one whose “squad goals are on fleek.” In these two vastly different vernaculars, the former party draws upon G-rated euphemisms while the latter draws upon the type of pop-cultural catchwords we’re talking about. The former might not be able to understand the latter’s contemporary, ever-evolving references, thus deeming him/her unintelligible, while the latter might view the former as prudish or troglodytic. Here, again, the latter’s buzzword-based idiom acts as hieroglyphics: each concise phrase holds a deeper meaning that is only elucidated to those who understand the language. Only the people who are supposed to know, know. And only the people who know experience a feeling of belonging.
But why should should we care? Does this shift toward digital pictographs mean a shift toward lassitude? Does it mean that the golden age of great storytelling is melting into a glitchy, fragmentalized mess of click bait, listicles, memes, and buzzwords? I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. The English language is fluid. It is an amorphous organism that ebbs and flows with the mood of our cultural climate. And our culture, right now, is experiencing a digital renaissance. A time where the internet’s magic-seeming ubiquity is socially overwhelming – where its impossible speed is intoxicating. So until we have a new toy to play with, a new device to daze and dazzle us, we’ll continue to speak in symbols and memetize our experiences.
If we have learned one thing so far in 2016, it’s that minions, the devious pill-shaped blobs from the film Despicable Me, are still inexplicably ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives. On April Fool’s day this year, Google decided to pull a fast one on its users by introducing the “Mic Drop” button to their email interface. The inconspicuous new button – appearing almost identical to the normal “send” button – automatically embeds a gif of a kingly-attired minion dropping a mic in bravado. Though coming from a place of well-intentioned humor (and albeit, product placement), the practical joke inadvertently ended up offending and stirring serious criticism. Because the button was so mistakable for the real “send” button, it easily and irrevocably inserted an inappropriately goofy cartoon into emails often containing sensitive or serious content. Getting attached to emails regarding deceased loved ones or important work deadlines (to name a few), the Mic Drop button not only fooled, but also seriously upset people and cost some their jobs.
But above the inconvenience, above the immediate frustration, is the lingering feeling of intrusion: the feeling that a platform which is essential to our digital lives – one which we rely upon to send and receive important information – has the faculty to infiltrate and alter the nature of our interpersonal conversations. Gmail, above most virtual communication platforms, carries a connotation of professionalism. It’s used for work and formal correspondences. In other words, it’s strictly business – unlike the often superficial pulp of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We need Gmail. We need it to form and maintain professional relationships. And, in return, we expect it to be equally serious – equally mature. But because we hold Gmail to this standard of integrity and no-bullshit respectability, we are startled when it betrays us: far more startled than if something like Facebook would have pulled this on us. So we begin to question our total reliance and faith in this platform’s supposed privacy. Essentially, Gmail has shown us its cards. It exposed a glitch in its security and revealed its power to trespass into our personal lives. And, to top it all off, it has done so in the most embarrassing way possible: through these brilliantly idiotic and aggressively topical little yellow shits.
Earlier this year, a federal judge called upon Apple to help the FBI unlock information on Syed Farook, the key suspect in the December San Bernardino shootings. The judge asked Apple to break the encryption on Farook’s iPhone thus affording law enforcement authorities entry into his private cellular information. Maybe because of their own moral compass or maybe because of their company’s public reputation, Apple declined to help. Eventually, the case was dropped by the government: they had found a third party who was willing to assist the FBI in their decrypting. And so, for now, the case is over. The government got what it wanted and Apple got to stand its moral high ground. But there’s something the case could not resolve: the nagging feeling that some big corporation is hovering over our shoulders, watching us. Through these events, we’ve become acutely aware that if the government can’t access our personal information, Apple certainly can; and if Apple doesn’t want to, the government will find some other way.
But more than the divide between these two power houses, the case has stirred hostility between corporate power and us: the users, the people. If Apple is the keeper of privacy – if they guard the threshold of federal intercession – doesn’t that imply their own access to our information? If Apple has the power both to break encryption and to maintain encryption, they are holding a wholly omnipotent position over us: a power that seems spookily reminiscent of the government’s power: a power we’ve come to accept or, maybe, don’t want to acknowledge. Though it seems that Apple sincerely wants to ensure their users’ security, they still maintain the access and the capability to take this security away at any moment. Essentially, just because they say they don’t want to, doesn’t mean they can’t.
But if we care so much about our privacy, and we know big corporations have the power to access our information, why don’t we just flush our iPhones down the toilet? Why can’t we abandon our technology – the digital sources of so much contemporary fear and anxiety? The answer is, we simply can’t. We can’t because we have become dependent on it. It is part of who we are: part of how we operate on a daily basis, part of how we form relationships, part of our identities. We’ve created technology and now we need it to be and to function. We rely on it, so we can’t just just ditch it: we need it but we fear it. So now we find ourselves in this bind. We are being torn in one direction by anxiety and in the other, by utter dependence. And, because there’s nowhere to run – no possible solution to this double-edged sword – we are paralyzed. We must endure the fear in order to participate fully in contemporary society. And, for the sake of practicality, we eventually teach ourselves to ignore this fear.
If there’s anything that the Apple vs. FBI case has illuminated, it’s that Apple has an invisible, inescapable hold over us. Just like Gmail and their army of life-ruining, job-ending minions, Apple has the digital mobility and the technical faculty to crack locks and gain entry into our personal lives. But more than tangible control, the fear of their invisible yet pervasive presence is enough to exert a silent control through the act of anxiety. It’s this anxiety that seems to define our hesitation toward the contemporary digital age. It’s that feeling of knowing somebody is looking over your shoulder. The feeling that your words are only truly yours under a mirage of privacy in an invented framework of digital security. But through the San Bernardino case, Apple has opened up its curtains and almost invited us to look through their artifice. For a short flash in time, this breaking of illusion allows us to scrutinize the mechanics of their digital power. We can see past their veneer of clean morality. We get mad, paranoid. We take extra precaution to lock our phones, censure our words, delete our nudes. We feel the weight of an omniscient other with every email we write, every picture we share. And, if only for a minute, before the ubiquity of their control fades again to the periphery of our thoughts, we taste that lingering feeling of exposure: exposure to a source that sees but is rarely ever seen