Date: Sun, 06 Oct 1996 20:20:24 +0100

From: John Horvath <>

Wittgenstein's Nightmare

John Horvath

I have an exclusive contract with teleopolis, but they told me that it's no problem to distribute or re-publish articles as long as there is a line that states it was first published in teleopolis. The article that most fits into the content theme is the one entitled "Wittgenstein's Nightmare". I have enclosed it at the bottom of this message.

"If you wish to converse with me, define your terms."

- Voltaire

Language has most profoundly been affected by the rapid changes in computer technology over the past decade. Hundreds of new words have entered our vocabularies and the proliferation of newer ones is growing. Meanwhile, words that were once rarely used or on the verge of archaic oblivion have now come back to life with avengence.

With so many new words and expressions entering our languages at such a quick pace, it is surprising that we are able to communicate as well as we do; not so much in terms of cross-linguistic communication, but between speakers of the same language. Still, what do we really mean by the multitude of phrases that we so freely toss about? The Digital Age, information superhighway, infobahn, global networked economy, global information infrastructure, information society, and so on; do we actually know what we are saying?

Take, for instance, the notion of "content". Somehow, this word has obtained a sense of importance to the extent that many believe it will play a significant role in the future. Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs), although busy at present making money providing people with access to the Internet (getting them "wired", so to speak), see "content" as the key to success when the boom in the business of getting people connected will have passed. In short, content is what will enable people stay connected. Not only that, it is what will make people stay online longer, which is at the very heart of ISP business.

On a governmental (stress is on "mental") level, the European Commission (EC), in trying to come to terms with the fact that the European Union (EU) is telematically inferior to both the US and Japan, consoles itself by pointing to the fact that what the EU has got is an abundant supply of content. The Information Society Forum, in its first annual report to the EC about making the most of the Information Society in the EU, put it in this way: "[...] Europe's cultural and linguistic diversity will be strengthened [...] creating new global opportunities for information products that exploit our rich heritage. Among other things, this means we must encourage the creative and entrepreneurial initiatives of our content producers [...]." In a like manner, the Forbairt Internet Report on Ireland in the Digital Age, entitled "A New Vision" (what else?), goes as far as to claim that Ireland's rich cultural legacy can propel the island onto the world's stage by becoming "a significant producer and exporter of content", thus leading to "a new Irish Renaissance".

So, what the hell is content?

A simple dictionary definition interprets "content" as subject matter. This is very close to how I would define it, though I would also somehow incorporate "substance" into the definition. Nevertheless, using this as a base, when ISPs talk about content as being the key to future success, I automatically assume (as a good native speaker of English, I pronounce the word according to its constituent syllables: ass-u-me) that they are talking about quality online material, unless they intend to make money from garbage. The ISF and Forbairt reports only confirm my assumption and prove that I'm not alone, for they somehow believe that a country's cultural baggage is what content is about. I'm sure if you look closely enough, there are many who are joyously thinking about how culture will permeate through the world thanks to the Internet, offsetting the globaloney (a reference to dominant US-based global culture) that now exists.

One only has to look at one's television set to see how maybe this might not be the case. We keep lamenting the fact that if there was only more "content" on TV then it would not be the mind-numbing form of mass media it is today. However, be honest with yourself: how many of us really do turn on the TV and sit glued to our sets when a national geographic program (that doesn't feature topless aboriginal ladies) is on? Some obviously do, but I doubt very much that the majority does, no less those people who will determine the commercial success of many an ISP or help create the "new Irish Renaissance", or even make the EU the telematic superior of both the US and Japan.

Speaking of the EU, how does the EC dare to actually define content? Well, according to I&T Magazine (a publication of the EC), content means the following: "data, text, sound and images which are reproduced in analogue or digital formats and carried by means of a variety of carriers including paper, microfilm and magnetic or optical storage." Well, I guess quality, culture, etc. fits in there -- somewhere. However, so too does all the trash we already see on TV, not to mention what also exists on radio and the print media. This being the case, what will "content" in the "information society" actually change from what we have now? My guess is absolutely nothing.

And what do the brave pioneers on the Internet have to say about all this? A prime example of the confusion over what "content" means was in a dialog posted on Nettime between MediaFilter, John Perry Barlow, and Rewired. Assumptions over "content" were thrown left, right, and center; it's a wonder no-one got killed. For instance, MediaFilter made the bold statement "content is the killer app...". Should I naturally presume that "app" means application? If so, then content is an application? John Perry Barlow replies: "I'm not sure what content is in the absense [sic!] of containers. Does a face to face conversation consist of "content".[sic!] Isn't the Net really just a Great Conversation?" Now, thanks to Mr Barlow, we have "content" related to language. Perhaps it's a linguistic application? David Hudson of Rewired then took the discussion (or should I say, "great conversation") further, inserting terms such as "traditional content providers", "alternative content", "content as packaging, not product", and so forth.

The pseudo-intellectualism exemplified in the MediaFilter-Barlow-Rewired dialog is something that actually pre-dates the Internet. It stems from a western view of education that glorifies intellectual masturbation. Accordingly, words are devalued by overuse and put together chaotically in seemingly academic phraseology in an attempt to make whatever the person is trying to say sound more important. However, it does not work. On the contrary, it does the exact opposite. Apart from occasionally being irritating, such jargon doesn't serve a purpose and diverts attention away from the finer details of language, thereby dispensing with the clarity and sense that goes with the fine art of communication.

It is quite obvious that all three were talking about different things when they used the word "content". In the end, my favorite piece of Internet wisdom on this topic comes from someone called Jonathan Friendly, who aptly summed up the problem in his title: "Forget About Getting More Net Content; First We Have To Get Rid of All the Garbage."

If the problem of trying to figure out what we are talking about were limited to just "content", then I guess the situation would not look so bleak. Unfortunately, the verbal diarrhea that makes up every new label we affix to the future suffers from this same lack of meaning.

For example, when I first heard proponents of the "Digital Age", or whatever you would like to call it, talk about the "learning society" or "knowledge-based society", I was immediately catapulted to heaven; my dream was at last coming true. In my youth, those glorious days of ferment and rebellion, I wanted to be a student forever. Not only because I was isolated in a world freed of social responsibility (not to mention the fact that I could travel cheaply), but the bliss I felt of learning something new, talking about things without regard for the consequences, maintaining a disinterested and unhurried search for the truth -- for me, this was living. More than that, it was paradise. And now, I was being told that all of society would be like that in the future; "life-long learning" as the EC called it. I began to lose my head, almost reaching the level of insanity that many so-called "Californian Ideologists" have succumbed to, preparing myself to take part in the "Great Conversation". My optimism knew no bounds. I felt world peace would be at hand, for all that would be needed would be to have the world "wired" and then all the petty wars we have been fighting would collapse into nothing more than a "Great Argument" -- noisy but at least bloodless.

I don't know what saved me (there truly must be a God) but I quickly came back to the world of the living. After prying deeper into what this "learning society" actually meant, I was disappointed to find out that it really hasn't anything to do with education at all, that is, based on what I consider education to be. No, as far as I could see, the "learning society" is more like a "lathe society", in where workers are simply re-tooled in order to always keep abreast of technological change so as to be able to operate the latest applications and devices.

With so many ill-defined concepts and notions floating around and disseminated through the Internet, one can't help but wonder why we have reached such a stage of nonsense. There are a variety of explanations, each depending on your personality and the mood you are in at the moment. Generally, they range from the simplistic to the cynical. The simple explanation is that we are just plain stupid. And as history has repeatedly demonstrated, sooner or later we will be punished for our stupidity. As the old saying goes, assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups.

On a more cynical (or should I dare say, conspiratorial) level, our sloppy use of language is purposely augmented by governments and multinationals in order to solicit mass support for policies that they know would be otherwise unacceptable to the general public. Thus, by using vague or ill-defined terms in which everybody assumes they know the meaning behind what is being said, vested interests are brainwashing us, intentionally pushing misconceptions about and through the new media. By the time it is realized what was actually meant by the terms involved, it would be too late.

Regardless of whether we are stupid or blind, the end result is still the same: a large part of our thinking is becoming increasingly marred by fallacies of our own choosing. And yet, in retrospect, it seems that we were given fair warning about this predicament by none other than Ludwig Wittgenstein. One of the foremost philosophers of the 20th Century, Wittgenstein concerned himself with the analysis of ideas and the need to think clearly. He realized that most problems were the result of linguistic carelessness. Analyzing language by probing into the nature of words, ideas, and beliefs, he concluded that only by asking questions clearly and precisely can we ever hope to get to the answers we are seeking. Hence, by "thinking our own thoughts" and not repeating words heard or phrases memorized, nor resorting to cliches and then pretending that they are really our own, can we safely say that we actually know what we are talking about.

What is ironic is that Wittgenstein's analytic philosophy lay the foundation for the language systems with which we operate computers today -- the cornerstone of our so-called "information society". Looking back, it is obvious that we have failed to listen to the voices of the past. Wittgenstein is undoubtedly turning in his grave.