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Sympathy for the Wordcel
This doesn't have anything to do with Wordle...or does it
There is a class of people – myself included – who are deeply, professionally invested in the technologies of writing, deliberation and representative democracy as the means for communication and control in society. The bedrock belief of this class of people, so fundamental that it need never be articulated, is that if people write/say the right words, and if enough other people read those words, and if democracy works unimpeded, the world will become better.
Two years into the pandemic and seven years into Modern (Trump-inflected) Twitter, a malaise is creeping into The Discourse. It’s remarkable that Twitter has been so central for so long, but it turns out to have been too addictive to put down. The topics are constantly changing, there’s immediate and detailed feedback on our performance, and there are real stakes, careers made and lost.
But we have been writing what we think are the right words for a long time. More people have been reading them than ever before. And yet it really doesn’t feel like the world is getting any better as a result. Many of the relevant class of people have thus doubled down on the idea that democracy is not functioning correctly.
I agree that American democracy is not functioning as well now as it was 30 years ago. But it’s functioning a hell of a lot better than it was 60 or 300 years ago, when the techno-cultural stack of rationalism, debate and writing was in ascendence. So I’m inclined to believe that even if we got rid of gerrymandering, the Electoral College and the filibuster, the pathway by which writing the right words produces a better world would still not be working properly.
We’re stuck, this group which I had mentally been referring to as “words-style people,” in a technosocial context that has collapsed in a span of less than two decades. Writerly values like clarity and facticity are transparently useless on Twitter. Deliberation has been overwhelmed by social information. Memes that combine words, sounds, and images have replaced even mildly structured writing as the primary way that information flows online.
In short: we have been routed.
The collapse of journalism as a profession has been widely noted, and it’s not all because of changing business models and vulture capitalists: society simply doesn’t care about the expertise of journalism. Personally, I wish we did still care about this skill set, but I’m not delusional: journalism as such was a response to a particular, contingent technosocial context, and it’s not coming back.
Many other professors I’ve spoken to have noticed a steep decline in the writing ability of incoming undergrads. People who have been teaching for forty years noticed a slight degradation over the decades, but the past ten and especially five years have seen a collapse. Technology has enabled young people to communicate in mediums (Instagram, Facetime, Snapchat, TikTok) which are better suited to their purposes: to socialize with each other. And for adults, after a brief period of abeyance achieved through abhorrence of mainstream culture, television has returned with a vengeance. The death of literary culture will only accelerate from here out.
Reading and writing are extremely valuable for structuring human cognition and communication, creating stable shelters from the buzzing confusion of our sensory experiences in which we can cooperate and improve. But these are not the only such technologies.
Take classical music or traditional dance. A trained consumer today can receive and appreciate richly condensed human experience encoded in these mediums, but most people cannot. These mediums are not inherently more sophisticated or complex than reading and writing (indeed they may be more inherently accessible); unless we continue to invest decades of children’s lives and trillions of dollars forcing them to learn the technologies of reading and writing, books will similarly fall (even farther) out of fashion and writing will return to its long-term status as a specialized technology for informational elites.
One of the major themes of this blog is that “technological determinism” is underrated. Recall my gloss of McLuhan's famous “the medium is the message.” The naïve view is that new media technologies add to pre-existing social / economic / political / cultural structures. This is incorrect; new media technologies fundamentally re-arrange those structures.
This is what we're seeing now; literary/liberal-democratic culture only functions when embedded in a whole range of institutions, practices and vocabularies of moral and political deliberation. Technological change has rotated the space in which this network of meaning was embedded. The territory has undergone a vertiginous transformation; some aspects of our old maps are no longer useful, and even worse, it's hard to know which aspects these are.
This rate of change is incompatible with human autonomy or dignity. And “wordcel” is an undignified word for an undignified phenomenon: the literary-cultural dead-ender who refuses to see the (ahem) writing on the wall. The Children of Men event, the sudden disappearance of our ability to reproduce ourselves, has happened in our lifetime, even though we would rather not admit that this is the case.
I gravitated to the phrase “wordcel” because it perfectly captured the vibe I have been grasping towards, that “the implicit belief in the efficacy of writing, deliberation and democracy held by words-style people has become increasingly incorrect.” Like all good memes, the phrase was coined by a crazy person on Twitter. Roon defines the wordcel in opposition to what he calls the “shape rotator,” someone with a different sort of cognitive skillset and ensuant implicit worldview. You may want to read his exegesis, but I think this is enough:
Today the shape-rotators’ stock is climbing to the moon. The world’s richest (self-made) men are almost uniformly engineers, computer scientists, or physicists. Vast portions of society that in a prior age might have been organized by government bureaucrats or private sector shot-callers have been handed over to cybernetic self-organizing systems designed and run by mathematical wizards.
A concise description: basically overnight, the institutions that governed society (and which were run on words) have been cannibalized. We are tweeting among the ruins.
This wouldn’t be Never Met A Science if I didn't introduce a (seemingly unrelated) 20th century social science text through which to understand modern trends. Richard Rorty was an iconoclastic philosopher, a member of the late 20th century “Pittsburgh school” who abandoned the dominant tradition of analytic philosophy in favor of the tradition of American Pragmatism and democracy exemplified by Dewey and Whitman.
Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity contains the most lucid overview of continental philosophy I’ve ever encountered, and is worth reading for that alone. But Rorty's philosophical method is useful specifically for understanding the “wordcel/rotator” dichotomy and the threat it illustrates. (Yes I know this is all ridiculous.)
Rorty also lays out his philosophical program of liberal irony. Liberalism, in Rorty’s definition inspired by Judith Shklar, is simply the belief that there is nothing worse than cruelty, that decreasing cruelty should be the primary aim of politics. Ironism is a more unusual idea: the ironist must accept the ultimate contingency of the vocabulary she uses to philosophize about her situation and the world — the fact that other people, in other communities at other times, used other vocabularies does not make them any more or less able to philosophize.
The concept of contingency is the more immediately useful for me. Everything about everything is different for us now that it is for others now and for people in the past and future. This includes the liberal community of which Rorty was a member. Rorty believed in liberal democracy, even as his pragmatism insists that terms are not perfect or even real; they are “merely” useful.
As someone raised in the heyday of American liberal democracy, Rorty provides the most compelling defense of this society I’ve ever encountered. Reading him made me literally proud to be an American, and nostalgic for a time when that was a coherent concept. It is a dialectical irony that Rorty’s articulation of the system came right as the technosocial bundle that he was describing dissolved.
Continuing with the theme begun with Margaret Mead, I’ll lend Rorty some credibility by point out that his analysis of American political culture enabled a prescient prediction of Trumpism. From 1998’s Achieving our Country:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.
So he had some idea of what’s going on. Returning to the idea of contingency, Rorty argues that progress in philosophy, art and science comes through powerful redescriptions that create novel vocabularies that future generations consider useful. He cites Harold Bloom’s concept of the “strong poet” as one who produces a new way of seeing. By introducing new language (words, verse, sentences), the strong poet changes our understanding of the relationships encoded in the vocabulary we use now. Analogously, Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the “paradigm shift” describes how “revolutionary science” (as opposed to “normal science”) entails a flanking maneuver, the adoption of novel constructs, measurements, and instruments to answer novel questions rather than adjudicate ongoing disagreements. In both cases, to use the old cliché, problems are dissolved rather than solved.
Roon, then, is what Bloom would call a strong poet. His “memetic repackaging of funny cognitive patterns ended up activating an incredible underbelly of tribalism that we didn’t know we were missing until now.”
The world is in turmoil; the internet is changing everything. Rorty believes that progress is made through re-description rather than logical inference, and given the circumstances, I obviously agree.
But while “wordcel” is immediately useful to me, there are two interpretations of what the technologists could mean by “shape rotation”—and it’s not clear which is correct, perhaps even to themselves.
The first refers to the new space of human endeavor, the social/political/economic world created by the internet. Almost by accident, humanity has rushed headlong into a terrifying new world, one in which different skills and novel institutions will be required to enable human flourishing. If we acknowledge this has happened, we can work towards building our future, towards what Rorty might call “Achieving our Cyberspace.”
Part of the value of shape rotation would come from translating existing patterns of meaning into the new coordinate space—from rendering past knowledge legible and valuable to humans raised in the age of the internet. This understanding of “rotation” may be familiar to people who have worked with coordinate transformations or matrix multiplication — and most directly, for people using natural language processing techniques like word embeddings. These techniques project high-dimensional natural speech into lower-dimensional space, enabling machines to discover relationships between them and make useful predictions about language.
What does “democracy” look like post-internet? “Cyber-plebiscites” and other early attempts by well-intentioned Europeans aren’t useless, but they fail to understand McLuhan’s adage. This isn’t the frontier of what’s possible. More radical is what’s going on in Taiwan, in which a significant percentage of the population is actively taking part in building cyberdemocracy — not through the old technologies of deliberation and voting for representatives, but through collaboratively creating the codebase. Farrell and Weyl make the argument that piecemeal reform and merely curbing big tech will not preserve democracy in the era of the internet; we need a radical rotation to translate our values into not-yet-imagined institutions.
The other definition of shape rotation, however, is far more sinister, inhuman. Rather than accepting a new communication-technological steady state and figuring out how to make it more hospitable to human flourishing, the newly-triumphant technologists may be aiming for permanent disruption, a disorienting world rotating at speeds inimical to the human-speed processes of contemplation, relationship-building, child-rearing and intergenerational communication.
This is ironism devoid of liberalism. Rorty diagnoses this pathology in Nietzsche, the pure ironism that says there is no such thing as “humanity” and thus no identification between subsequent generations; most people do not rise above the status of dying animals, only those “supermen” whose transcendent Will enables a non-contingent self-fashioning.
But don’t just take it from me. Here’s one of the most powerful people in the world, mocking the ineffectualness of clever words-style people tweeting as if it could possibly matter.