Sculpting a Digital Language
by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University
A number of responses to my last Flow column wondered what form the “digital language” I advocated might take. The question took me back to a very non-digital experience. It was a singular moment — unexpected on two levels. First, it was surprising that the show, featuring more works by Auguste Rodin than had ever been gathered in one place, was at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Second, as a lifelong Rodin-groupie, I didn’t expect to see a “new-to-me” work. But I turned the corner and there it was, Fallen Angels. It was love in an instant. Totally blind-sided, I stood and stared. I wanted to laugh and cry. Breathing was difficult, but what little air I could inhale seemed like Spring. I put out my hand and a museum guard quickly materialized, fixing me with a restraining glare. I returned to the show many times, spending hours just gazing at the Fallen Angels. It seems paradoxical that that ecstatic experience has come to define for me what we must avoid as we seek a new language for the digital environment. But, let us begin at the beginning.
I believe in Louis Sullivan’s assertion that form follows function — in skyscrapers, scissors and language. Language should be con-formed to its essential function: manifesting the perceptual-conceptual moment. And what, you ask, does that mean? Good question.
I often ask my students to consider the most powerful moments in their lives: when they fell in love, or realized that love had left; the birth of a child, the death of a parent; the moment they sensed a divine presence, or came to believe they were alone in the universe. Then I ask them to define what kind of a moment it was. A text moment? A picture moment? Tactile or olfactory? Musical? Eventually we agree that it was all of those at once. It was a multimodal moment.
Next I ask them where this moment occurred. Not the physical location that stimulated the perception, but where the perception bloomed. After a seemingly mandatory detour through the idea that a person with an artificial heart can fall in love, we fix this multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment [MPCM] in the brain; locked within us. Yet, we cannot leave it there. Often these peak MPCMs are communicative crystallizations, internal personal epiphanies that we are driven to share. That is the function of language. But what kind of language?
In the previous column I asserted that the evolution of communication technology is a bartered negotiation between cultural needs and technological capacity. Language, too, grows from a negotiation between society’s communicative needs and the capabilities of the media that hold language. It is most often a negotiation in which the medium — the language container — dominates; “form follows function” turned upside down. The functional ability of the container determined the form of the language. Paper holds words and numbers and images, stone and wood hold carving, instruments hold music. Thus, we began a millennia-long drift away from the ideal of a holistic representation of the MPCM. Instead we inclined towards language containers that held powerful unimodal expressions of the MPCM. The innate inflexibility of the container drove the drift; but there were other important factors at work. Among them were the tyranny of task and the hegemony of the marketplace.
Tyranny of task is the temporal pressure that accompanies every communicative need. If my sudden need is to communicate to my hunting partners that there is a mastodon the size of Montana around the bend, and I don’t want to alert the critter; sign language gains immediate primacy. If I need contracts and trade records to maintain the viability of my commercial interests, writing swiftly ascends. Painting and sculpture are effective in conveying the teachings of mystics to an illiterate populace. From the beginning of human time to Tuesday’s faculty meeting, we have always needed tomorrow’s communication tools yesterday. The driving need to get the task done puts the buggy beta version of the language swiftly into our hands. The crafting of language has never been a leisurely, reflective undertaking.
The hegemony of the marketplace becomes apparent when we realize that language systems and media do not merely facilitate commerce — they are themselves commodities. The wealthiest man in America is not Sandberg’s “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” He is a communication broker — a trader in computer hardware and software. Dominant corporations no longer fabricate steel, they stretch fibers of pure glass and fill them with messages designed to amuse and beguile us. Communication — the tools that facilitate it; and the words, sounds and images that define and construct our truth — has become the primary commodity of the 21st century. And the languages that dominate in that marketplace are not those that best express the MPCM; they are the ones — from computer operating systems to blockbuster films — that generate the most revenue.
And finally, there is the intimidation of genius — which takes us back to Rodin’s Fallen Angels. Genius uses a single mode expression to instigate a multimodal perceptual cascade in the mind of the audience member. Rodin’s sculpture, O’Keeffe’s painting, Mozart’s music, Balanchine’s choreography — all communicative acts from previous centuries that pour such power and perception into a uni- or bi-modal communication container that, in a kind of holographic transformation, we respond as if we were suspended in the totality of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. These are acts of expressive genius that recreate the holistic MPCM from a fragment of its parts. They leave us with the notion that such communication is “normal,” when, in truth, it is rare beyond imagining.
These, then, are the barriers that stand between the languages we have inherited, and the language we should create to fully express the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment in the digital environment:
∑ A history of unimodal languages developed to conform to the capabilities of existing communication containers.
∑ The tyranny of task prompting a “crisis-management” approach to language development, which favored quick and dirty language solutions over elegant expressive tools.
∑ The hegemony of the marketplace that currently fosters the development of technologies, languages and content that gain primacy based on profit.
∑ The heritage of genius that implies that we already have the expressive tools we need, if only we had the necessary “gift.”
Those are daunting obstacles indeed. Which is why I advocate simply walking away and starting all over. Seriously. I look around my campus and talk with colleagues near and far, and see little chance that we will succeed in “evolving” a new language for the digital age. The old barriers are simply too high. The tyranny of task confronts most academic endeavors: Use technology to solve the pedagogical challenges we cannot fix with bricks and mortar, right now! The purely expressive endeavors — art, music and animation (even in the rarefied atmospheres of Annenberg and MIT) — presume levels of funding that only government or industry can provide. Not surprisingly those efforts often result in products that primarily profit the military, the government, or the media cartel.
So here is how I would start over — if I had Bill Gates’ money. I would build a Digital Language and Expression Development Center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why there? Because I like it there. This is my fantasy. Initially, there would be two populations at the Center. Since the function of digital language is to manifest the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment, I would find the most creative traditional artists I could — in all the arts — and bring them to the Center. They are already manifesting the MPCM with damaged languages. They bring function. Then I would bring the best programmers in the world to the Center. They would be responsible for creating the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artists. But the artists would lead — form follows function, remember?
The artists would spend their days doing art, and the programmers would watch. At breakfast and lunch the artists and the programmers would negotiate the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artist’s medium. The programmers would be responsible for making sure that the various expressive digital palettes would be integrated: Musicware works with Artware with Filmware with Textware with Sculptware, etc. Eventually we get Expressionware — an open-source digital language that can contain all the elements of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. Over dinner we would do “show and tell.”
Next we would conduct workshops for people from all different walks of life, painters, politicians, pursers and publicans — and jobs that start with other letters too. Each workshop would explore how Expressionware could be used in that arena, expanding it to include new or unique concerns and requirements. And thus, over the years, we would sculpt a new digital language, thoughtfully and reflectively.
I, naturally, would live at the Center, wandering, wondering, watching, and learning — because it is my fantasy.
Please feel free to comment.