Brave New World: High-Tech Words

Kate Middleton

In a recent edition of the New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote about the television show The Good Wife. As television shows produced for the major free-to-air networks in the United States go, The Good Wife is remarkably grown-up: the adults act like adults, with nuanced, contradictory opinions and mannerisms, the parents behave like parents, and the few teenagers that appear on the show act maddeningly like teenagers. The search for the grown-up is not a new phenomenon in this time of teen-oriented media saturation: Virginia Woolf famously declared George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Like The Good Wife, Middlemarch is an in-for-the-long-haul novel, as characters making ordinary decisions become fully aware of their consequences and deal with those consequences in wrenchingly human ways. So it is with The Good Wife: while the procedural case-of-the week format of the show can be hit and miss, the long-term build up of these characters and the legal/political milieu of the show’s version of Chicago is multi-faceted, and therefore satisfying. But this is not a television review.

The Good Wife

I was interested in Nussbaum’s article not only because I am a fan of the show, but because she proposed that The Good Wife is “the first great series about technology” – technology in contemporary life, that is, and in a recognisably ordinary world. (Of course science-fiction frequently offers often-brilliant musing on technology.) The Good Wife explores social media, twitter, e-currency, online personae, the ins-and-outs of surveillance in the iPhone camera age among a myriad of other digital minutiae. Characters display greater or lesser facility in dealing with their technology, but what elsewhere could be turned into simplistic buffoonery – hey, grandma doesn’t know how to turn on a computer! – here becomes part of the debate about, to use Anthony Trollope’s phrase, “The Way We Live Now.” Or, in Nussbaum’s words, as the show goes on, its plots

have become a dense, provocative dialectic, one that weighs technology’s freedoms against its dangers, with a global sweep and an insider’s nuance. …“The Good Wife” stands in contrast not merely to other legal shows, with their “The Internet killed him!” plots, but also to the reductive punditry of the mainstream media, so obsessed with whether Twitter is making us stupid.

The writers, husband and wife team Michelle and Robert King, are aware that these technologies are here to stay – at least until they morph into something else – and through their show they want to explore what this means for human relationships.

George Eliot's Middlemarch

One of the reasons all this interests me is because I think a lot about the ways in which our virtual lives have come to affect our language. In the past decade, when the American dictionary makers Mirriam-Webster have released their annual top- ten “Words of the Year” list, many of these words have been technology-related. In 2004 “blog” made the top-ten, as blogs slithered from Live Journal musings to mainstream debate tools; in 2006 the verb “google” made it on the list followed in 2007 by “facebook” in its verb-form. Another group to get in on the Word of the Year action is the American Dialect society: for 2009 their word of the year was, not-surprisingly, “tweet.” The 2010 list of nominations included “hacktivism” and the new use of “trend” as a verb specific to online buzz – then voted on “App” as the winning word. The Oxford English Dictionary is also in on the list-making action – for 2009 their pick was “Unfriend.”  On the Oxford University Press blog, they note that they refer to the annual Word of the Year season as “WOTY.” How acronym-savvy of them – that is, IMHO.

All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to literature, and especially to poetry. So often literature is where neologisms arise – though these days it seems that the “newspeak” of technology, and the commentary that surrounds it, is the leader in forging new language. Last week I had the opportunity to hear the poet, editor and translator Michael Hulse speak, and one of the things he said that struck me was that “English is becoming impoverished: it is drifting toward its functional pole”. I do not know if I agree entirely with this view, but sometimes all the tech-talk makes me wonder.

Though it has taken a long time for television to make this nuanced exploration of our current technology, television seems a natural enough place for that discussion to arise: after all, television is itself a new technology, and is now constantly incorporating add-ons, from websites (apparently, by law in the United States any website that appears within a television show must exist in reality) to twitter-feeds. Show-runners monitor online discussion, at times changing the direction of a show as course-correction when chatter reveals viewers’ tastes. How Dickensian! Good television writers are incredibly skilled and, at times, positively artful in their understanding of drama. While we don’t tend to think of television when we think of literary arts, we are willing to make exceptions from time to time. Many viewers followed writer Aaron Sorkin between television shows such as the The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and then to the big screen for outings like The Social Network, familiar with his particular cadence.  And television writers – the architects behind this contemplation of technology – are used to thinking through the inherent technical aspects of television when writing anyway. Many novelists and poets think about these things on a daily basis, too – but on the other hand, plenty are always meaning to backup their hard drive, and left in a near-catatonic state if their mysterious machines fail them.

Still, as far as I know, many novelists are managing to incorporate all this technology into their work, albeit with some hiccups along the way – and poetry too is getting in on the game. Still, they’ve been slow to investigate its lyric possibilities.

It’s not because poets are luddites – there are plenty of terrific young internet-versed poets running around out there, and, judging by examples like Ron Silliman, John Tranter and Pam Brown, not a few older ones too. And it’s not because poets aren’t fans of neologisms – how many words did Shakespeare coin?

And, yes, there are plenty of ways that technology is coming into verse – some of it is to do with the way poems are written (from flarf to the use of specific programs to generate texts that may remove the human touch altogether), while many contemporary narrative poems of course draw on the ubiquity of all this tech cluttering our lives, and still other poems inhabit the lexicon of coding.

Jaya Savige

One Australian poet whose work shows an interest in the language of technology as part of the lyric poet’s arsenal is Jaya Savige. Savige can slip the brave new parlance into a poem such as “Summer Fig,” from his latest book Surface to Air, as in: “Our backyard god’s/ a giant fig, downloading/ gigs of shade onto the fresh cut grass.” He makes it work. While this is by no means a dominant strain in his work, it’s nonetheless something I notice whenever I pick up his books.  Many poems by other authors stay entirely within the world of tech-speak, and often strike me as elaborate word/mind games—in-jokes, if you will—more than successful poems, claiming the language and putting it to use. In “Summer Fig” Savige takes the familiar words and uses them as lyric materials, re-examining the possibilities of this language to tell us something about our relationship to the world. Technology isn’t the point—but it’s a tool and, arguably, an enhancement in the poem. How novel.

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