Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When Did Information Become an Agent?

I have always believed that one good way to measure the extent to which a society is in decline is by the frequency of barbarisms that arise in its use of language. This may actually be tautological in terms of the two definitions of "barbarism" in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the first being the state of "uncultured ignorance" and the second the use of "words and idioms" that depart from the standard conventions of the language. However, since it is too easy to run afoul of cultural relativism when debating the first definition, I tend to focus my attention on the second.

The last time I decided to hold up a barbarism for ridicule was when I encountered a text that asserted that "trees, rocks, and bouncing balls" all "demonstrate intelligence to the extent that they obey the laws of physics." The problem, of course, is that a rock (to choose the most blatant case) cannot obey anything, since it is incapable of taking any motivated action that would be regulated by a sense of obedience. In other words, if you take just a little bit of time to apply basic semantic analysis to what the assertion is really saying, what emerges is little more than a preposterous jumble of words. It is the sort of proposition worthy of Enrico Fermi's most damning insult, "It isn't even wrong," because, while it may be syntactically coherent, the semantics amount to little more than a waste of air (as a former colleague who happened to be a big Dukes of Hazzard fan liked to put it).

Having established both a denotative and a connotative framework for my use of "barbarism," I am now ready to pull out another example that bugs me more and more each time I hear it:

Information wants to be free.

Ironically, the same type of specious reasoning is involved in the second example: Information is no more capable of motivated action than a rock is. It can no more want anything than a rock can exhibit obedience. Nevertheless, this has become an obsessive mantra of Internet evangelists, who claim it is the reason why one should not charge for content accessible through the World Wide Web. In other words those evangelists want to turn another preposterous jumble of words into a moral imperative (which is really saying something, since one can assume that few, if any, of them have ever spent much time wrestling over any other moral question, even one as common as participating in a jury decision).

The good news is that there are still a few people in the world who know how to confront gibberish with straight talk; and, while it pains me to say anything nice about the Disney empire, I have to admit that Disney CEO Bob Iger is one of them. Iger has both the confidence and the experience to talk back to technocentric airheads; and, according to Ina Fried's Beyond Binary column for CNET News, he did just that at a Fortune-sponsored technology conference in Pasadena. The text for his sermon was simple enough:

People are willing to pay for quality. They are willing to pay for choice; they are willing to pay for convenience.

If those assertions were not true, Disney would not be the powerful empire it has become. (The trick to gaining that power, as Iger would probably agree, is a talent for turning mere willingness into strong motivation.) Nevertheless, for all the power he commands, I doubt that any of his straight talk will shake his audience out of their habit of substituting claptrap for sentences that mean something; and that is where we confront the risk of becoming a society of "uncultured ignorance" (who, of course, will then be susceptible to having their motivations manipulated by the likes of Disney)!

No comments: