Are we Forgetting What Words are for?

Our digital selves, semantic differences, and profiteering

What if God was one of us? It’s been 25 years since Joan Osborne asked and America is officially done trying to answer the question. As far as it’s concerned, there’s only one deity: The 19th letter of the English alphabet adorned with two vertical strikes.

Amen, say all those non-profit religious organizations friendly with the Trump administration raking it in during desperate times. There’s nothing like an Act of God like — a pandemic, no less — to fill the coffers. Corporate media and social media work the same way, lining their pockets with the proceeds of human disempowerment.

The digital mirror doesn’t reflect anything that isn’t already there, no matter how much it distorts it.

It’s nothing new. As the famed journalism adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” So next time you’re wondering why your eyeballs are being attacked by super plus tampons, you know why. Bonus fact: The non-applicator kind bounces off hardwood floors and makes for a fun cat toy when still wrapped.

In times of tirades and screeds, let’s not forget the playfulness of words, their ability to conjure up a moment of levity, of relief, of respite amid chaos as vortexes powered by outrage, greed, and fear suck your brains out of your skull through your nearest screen, probably the one you carry in your pocket.

We may no longer wake up to Trump’s latest rant unless paid to subject ourselves to such an indignity but the tenor of the online discourse hasn’t improved one bit. To declare words matter and believe in their power to conjure up a different reality remains an act of defiance these days even though everyone knows you’re right: The result is glowing orange for the whole world to see.

Words did conjure up an alternate reality even since someone decided Make America Great Again sounded good even though the country’s size was already on the generous side. And then someone else claimed being honest as their superpower. Things went from awkward to mediocre without anyone batting an eyelid. Much as it pains us, we were forced to acknowledge that, perhaps, Donald Trump is the most honest representation of American values we’ve ever had.

You, too, may wonder what has happened to language, to communication, to words. A society in thrall to sensationalism and ever taller tales of ritualistic humiliation and shame is sick, malfunctioning, dysfunctional. What used to be unconscionable to scrupulous media practitioners has become normalized by clickbait, social media platforms, and the parasites they spawned, social media marketers turned super-users turned influencers turned scammers. The business model isn’t a bug but a feature although rare are the tech companies with the backbone to admit as much. Instead, they leave users to fend for themselves.

Now is a disheartening time to be making a living with words. When you’re not contending with the erosion of free speech, you’re pushing back against dumb and snake oil salesmen, trying to rescue language from the clutches of those determined to turn every word into its antonym.

Online, words are both a currency and disposable: Human communication is theater. Ideally, you want an auditorium packed to the rafters as many hecklers as you can shake a selfie stick at. Everyone wants to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi and be friends with names so of course users will willingly share all their data to help turn your platform into one of the largest psychometric databases in the world. But instead of being compensated for your services to AI, you are being charged for the privilege of membership.

If data is wealth, imagine the value of being able to observe how human brains think out loud in print, at least those who use the interface your platform provides instead of cutting and pasting a document from elsewhere.

Think about this for a moment.

Dystopia needn’t always be scary when it can be interesting. If the words you speak and write could design the future, what would you want it to look like? Accountability is key in writing and in life but it’s always easier to blame someone else for our own shortcomings. Cowardice is more comfortable than taking your responsibilities, regardless of how many times you’re reminded that Trump isn’t the cause of the deep moral rot that’s taken hold nationwide online but rather a symptom. And, perhaps, so are you, depending on the kind of writing you produce.

Instead of using the internet to move thinking forward, we’ve turned it into a reality where Trump sets the tone. Follow the money and let it take you to your leader, whoever they may be.

Or dissent and defund dumb, defying it with words while they still matter, in places where they still matter, wherever they may be.

Every time I open my laptop now, I hear Freddie Mercury. “I want to break free,” Freddie belts out and how I can relate! I feel trapped too, trapped in false promises, trapped in deceitful marketing, trapped in the spiritual poverty of an internet getting a little less humane every day. Loneliness, precariousness, and the absence of adequate health care have engendered users who are desperate for connection and compensation and thus vulnerable, especially in the United States where human worth is a dollar figure. Often, those people have no support network other than the makeshift web of randoms they’ve assembled online.

As an aside, it’d be remiss of me to ever forget where I came from two years ago or the even darker hole I disappeared into when my best friend died. He trusted me to find the words, I promised him I would try and I’m still honoring this commitment.

Desperate people will believe anything that offers them hope and a shot at redemption. And that anything inevitably starts with words else we wouldn’t still be quoting from a 2,000 year-old book.

But not all internet users know how to use words for effective and credible communication, how to tell the difference between facts and fiction, or how to find more information and vet sources. And for all the formidable efforts that exist to educate professionals and the public, there’s braying braggarts calling for people who dare question the status quo out loud to be cancelled. Welcome to the post-accountability world: You no longer have a right to be heard because someone who has more power than you — or the majority — disagrees with what you have to say. No one cares whether you’re right or wrong, your facts just don’t fit their feelings about what facts should be today.

And you’ve hurt their big feels, how very, very, very dare you? ‘Adulting’ is hard.

Although not every disagreement is gaslighting, these two words are now interchangeable to many. From there, you might infer having a dick makes you one. Or having a cunt makes you one, too, although some may call it false equivalency in those patriarchal times. Sometimes, you need strong language to get people to pay attention, too.

Newspeak is the voice of greed, perfectly modulated to trigger instant outrage or fear, depending on what pays more. And it’s not how democracy works but tech is having a field day with it, getting rich while promising users riches.

Remember those desperate folks jonesing for connection and compensation?

Words on the internet can erase borders and create new lives but social media platforms that vowed to connect us have organized us into echo chamber hives instead. This is incompatible with conversation, reflection, or creative cross-pollination of the organic kind. And no, you can neither force nor replicate serendipity, regardless of what some bloke with a fancy title tells you.

Much of what we read online is bunk. The only way to avoid it is reputable outlets and people you can trust not to massage the truth most would prefer not to hear. Although you’ll meet people along the way, curiosity is a solo journey. On occasion, you might meet someone — or someones — with whom you share a particular inquisitiveness about something. To me, this someone is the internet, myriad of potential co-conspirators, collaborators, and curious folks who, one day, also decided to see what words could do. There isn’t much of a reason to congratulate ourselves yet and perhaps there never will be.

This is us, I’m afraid, this is who we are, spending too much time writing about what is instead of what could be if, instead of locking thinking away and throwing away the key, we did manage to move it forward.

What if connection were the compensation? What would you write then?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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