In “Language: The Most Disruptive Technology,” former diplomat and presidential advisor Charles Hill sees a revolutionary shift in how language is used. “Disruptive” and “revolutionary” are favored terms used by technology mavens at Ted Talks. But Hill thinks the new language technologies of social media spell trouble for democracy and social cohesion.
Bring Out the Sociopaths
Instant communication allows individuals to vent over nothing to a global audience. And this constant stream of instant communication lifts the lid on a Pandora’s Box of sociopaths, crowding out voices of reason.
Every thought, no matter how vile or disruptive, is instantly amplified and made permanent in the world. But there are consequences to this. Hill invokes Freud when asserting that “civilized order and progress” require some sort of self-control to relegate baser, unstable thoughts to the unconscious mind.
Another Bootheel for Dictators
While individuals are using their abilities to say whatever crosses their mind to online audiences, governments around the world are greatly increasing their powers of surveillance and control, and limiting the opportunity for meaningful change.
Governments are using technology to impose their will and their propaganda on citizens. Hill cites the examples of Russia and the People’s Republic of China as regimes that have perfected “techniques of interception, cooperation, blockage, elimination, falsification, and more.”
The Death of Democracy?
In Hill’s view, the American Republic, with its checks and balances, separation of powers and more gradual system of decision-making, is being replaced by the kind of direct democracy that dumped the Athenians into history’s dustbin. Democracy Athenian-style (a quick thumbs up or thumbs down with no time for argument, an environment where “words lost their meaning”) was anathema to US founding fathers.
Working democracies need time and intellectual space for actors to consider and debate ideas, and room for ideas to evolve and grow. Yet, today’s ubiquitous recording devices, speeded thought and society’s need for “now” are quickly pushing rough drafts into the spotlight and robbing actors of any privacy to think. As a result, the public is making do with half-baked ideas instead of conscious ideas that have had the opportunity to become fully formed.
In “Language: The Most Disruptive Technology,” Hill decries the culture of instant communication enabled by today’s technology that has brought about a dangerous “now” and partisan mentality, ever more interested in scoring temporary points and agitating sociopaths than in creating long-term solutions for effective governance. A thought-provoking look at how the language of public discourse is rapidly transforming our world.
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