Speaking by formula

When did computers start progamming our language?

Mark Ryan

Topics Politics

Prefabricated language makes up an increasing part of our thoughts and expression. Today, it is almost as though we are speaking, and writing, as computers.

This thought first occurred to me while reading the much-debated report on ‘The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain’, released in October 2000 by the Runnymede Trust (1). There is not a trace of an original insight in this report, not a single sentence which I have not seen many times before, not a single fresh turn of phrase to relieve the acres of multi-culti verbiage. It is as if somebody loaded every scrap of academic cultural studies bumf into a computer, wrote a program to select and match the scraps, then ran the rubbish back through the program.

From the very first sentence, the mental processes of those involved in the report appear to have worked more like a search engine than a human brain, words plucking out their matching qualifiers from the database. Multicultural societies are always ‘confident and vibrant’, ‘at ease’ with their diversity which is ‘rich and varied’. You ‘nurture’ diversity and ‘foster’ a ‘common sense of belonging’, while the sense of identity should always be ‘multiple’ and ‘shared’ and never ‘exclusive’ and ‘monolithic’. And on it goes, page after dismal page.

There is something profoundly witless about the Runnymede report: witless in the twofold meaning of that term. It is both lacking in intelligence, and lacking in humour. For all the talk about the cynicism and self-irony of our age, you’d probably have got more cynicism and self-irony from Savonarola on a bad day than you would from the assembled (in the twofold meaning of that term also) cultural studies’ magnificos and millionaires’ wives. ‘While such essential procedural values as tolerance, mutual respect, dialogue and peaceful resolution of differences are paramount, as are such basic ethical norms as respect for human dignity, equal worth of all, equal opportunity for self-development and equal life-chances, society must also respect deep moral differences and find ways of resolving inescapable conflicts.’

Only a brain purged of all capacity for self-criticism could come up with that. You’d think one of the 23 authors of the Runnymede Trust report would have piped up at some point in their months of proceedings and said, ‘Oh come on, can we just listen to ourselves and our ghastly verbiage for a minute?’. But clearly, none of them had the slightest capacity for self-reflection, for standing back and listening to themselves. There is something chilling about that.

Again, I think of the analogy with the computer. I can conceive of a computer which could ‘think’ in all sorts of complex ways. I could never conceive of a computer which would think something and then look at what it thinks and apply broader moral judgements to its own thoughts, or even just to say to itself, ‘God, you’d sound ridiculous if you said that’.

The witless use of prefabricated language fits into a bigger pattern than the predictable set of multicultural pieties on offer from the Runnymede Trust. Such a report could only appear within a society which had already gone a long way towards sterilising its thought and regimenting its moral feelings. From high affairs of state, business and culture, to our everyday speech, our language is governed increasingly by prescription and formula. The consequences of this trend for the independence of the mind are far-reaching.

Just to give an everyday example: in London, as in so many other cities and towns, you can find up to four or five nice gleaming coffee shops on a single high street. All these shops are branches of chains, many of which are multinational – Starbucks being the best known. You could go into a Starbucks anywhere in the world and find not only the same set-up (despite their efforts to make every shop look different and informal – they, too, ‘nurture diversity’), but you will also have the same exchange with one of the assistants.

The entire process, the ideal pattern of how a coffee should be ordered, has already been determined in advance by the company. The staff will even correct you if you don’t follow the correct procedure. If you decide that ‘tall and skinny’ is proper only to the description of a human body, and that it is stupid when applied to a container of coffee and instead choose to ask for a medium size, you will be corrected and told the proper name. Why? Because every exchange that takes place between staff and customers has to conform to a documented procedure drawn up by Starbucks at its headquarters in Seattle.

Starbucks is typical. Almost any large company, particularly those in the ‘New Economy’ – IT, entertainment, leisure – will have all interactions with the public strictly controlled and regimented. Even quite small businesses, particularly those in the New Economy, will have most, if not all customer relations set up in such a way that they conform to a documented procedure.

Customer relations management (CRM) is the new ‘science’, which drills its users in the management of people. Because the Western economy in particular has become so overwhelmingly geared towards services, selling and entertainment, towards playing on people’s affections, CRM has become a mighty serious business. CRM does for the relations between people what the production line did for relations between people and things in the last century – turning human exchange into a planned procedure taking place within a controlled environment.

A familiar manifestation of CRM is the way so many companies appear to have the same or similar slogans these days: ‘Our business is about people, not…[whatever it is they actually deal in].’ When staff join London Underground, for example, they are told at their opening indoctrination that LU used to move trains. Now they move people. (In fact, they do neither.)

The result of CRM is that no human exchange can be left to chance, every interaction between people must be planned for and channelled along a set path. Selling is not about salesmen using their wits to sell things: the process now must be tabulated down to the last twitch of body language. Dealing with unhappy customers or people simply making enquiries must also be controlled and regulated in such a way that the conversation will always follow a pattern which will lead to a certain set of pre-determined outcomes.

All of us will have had experience of the telephone helpdesk, the effusive welcome you receive from the other end, whether from woman or machine, then the clawing, solicitous intimacy (‘Yes Mark, how can I help you?’), and the suggestive offer at the end (‘Is there any other service you’d like?’). You can safely assume that an increasing number of the exchanges you have with anybody in an official capacity today are, like the helpdesk, now governed by documented procedure.

The effect is that so much of what we say, the language we use, and even more importantly, the way we express ourselves, is now governed not by us as individuals, but by some external source, from business to government. Bit by bit, the words we use with each other every day, what was once part of the simple and spontaneous affairs of life, are now pieces in a formula created beforehand by somebody else.

Turning language into formula is bad enough in business and commerce. But it extends far beyond that. What we have seen in recent years is a convergence of interest, and even of sentiment, between the business right and the cultural left, for want of better terms. The business right regulates everything we say in our work environment; the cultural left wants to regulate everything we say outside work – in the family, in education, in culture. The result of this pincers movement is the strangulation of all natural human sentiment through the standardisation of language.

All those realms before which the market once stopped – the family, schools and universities, culture, religion – are now undergoing the same standardisation of language and speech. If anything we are even more sensitive to how we should behave and talk to each other in our private lives, precisely because we can’t rely on the regulation that we have come to accept in our public lives. This is called using ‘appropriate’ language or behaviour.

Education, too, is governed to an unprecedented degree by codes of conduct, harassment policies, cultural diversity policies, anti-racist policies and a general monoculture aimed at ‘raising self-esteem’. In pursuit of these venerable causes, the use of language is closely monitored and regulated. You would find more free thought these days in a barracks than you would in much of third-level education.

To gauge the depths to which we’ve sunk, look at the world of culture. In the past many leading thinkers, such as the German sociologist Max Weber, looked to the arts, literature and music to guarantee some area of free thought and expression beyond the ruthless levelling effects of the market. Now the world of culture is so thoroughly regimented that it is easy to predict what any cultural official, and even many artists, will say on almost any given subject. The words all come on cue with the same precision as the Runnymede report.

Take the furore when the string quartet Bond, known as the ‘Spice Girls of classical’, were thrown off the classical charts (an act of uncommon and admirable daring these days), because they were deemed closer to pop than classical. Lead violinist, Haylie Ecker, responded: ‘In the modern world, it is disappointing that the classical elite cannot embrace change.’ (2) This statement perfectly straddles the union of the cultural left and the business right.

On the one side is the pseudo anti-elitism of the cultural left – they don’t tell us how wonderful we are, they must be snobs. On the other side is CRM-speak about embracing change. ‘Don’t just face change, embrace change’ is in fact a CRM slogan, which managers learn on drill in business parks all over the country. The same sentence, with the word classical dropped and another inserted in its place, has been uttered by perhaps hundreds of officials in business, culture and government. Tony Blair himself said something almost identical in his disastrous speech to the Women’s Institute in June 2000 (3). Just as the words are all prefabricated, so too is the tone.

That word ‘disappointing’ is very typical. Cultural officials rarely attack an opponent (what they would call ‘an elitist’) head on. Instead they will always express disappointment at his behaviour. An expression of disappointment avoids conflict, but at the same time elevates the disappointed party to a state of condescending superiority: in this case, as if it was the classical establishment which had failed a test, rather than the Bond girls who had been repudiated as a pack of bimbos masquerading as serious musicians (or was it serious musicians masquerading as bimbos?). Maybe some PR agent made up the statement and it was then passed on to the pouting Haylie to repeat, but you do wonder, would it have made any difference if she had made it up herself? Whether she did or not, she is already well on the way to turning herself into a machine through which ready-made thoughts are pumped out.

When people start to speak a formula language they become less individual and cheapen their humanity. To me, one of the most powerful scenes in Terminator, the scene that really brought alive Arnie’s robotic nature, was when the camera went inside his skull to show his thought process. What we saw was a constant stream of drop-down menus from which he chose with terrific speed. Formula language is like the drop-down menu. You choose from a set list of what is already available to you instead of trying to formulate your thoughts out of your own mind.

Yes, of course, it is the very rare individual who can speak or write in such a way that the words come bright and sparkling as if they were minted out of his own character. That’s the greatness of Shakespeare, that he could not just pour out so vast a literature with such ease, but at the same time could make the reader look at all those words as if he were seeing them for the first time.

There are no tired words in Shakespeare. Every one is examined from every conceivable angle, its range of meanings and internal oppositions probed, its pressure on the ear, and the balance it creates with the words around it, weighed and measured – and all this done as if it were an effortless expression of his own nature. Shakespeare shows what a tremendous liberation of the mind the rigour of language can be, and how such a universal instrument can make us sovereign of our own thoughts.

Those of us lacking the poetic nature get by at a more mundane level with our words. Most of the time we use words without really thinking very much about them, sailing along on autopilot, picking up phrases we like from other people, and generally not letting words disturb us too much. In this sense, language can be as much a barrier to thought as it can facilitate it. But this sort of unconscious speech is not too big a worry. If we were all to concentrate all the time on every possible meaning to be gleaned from our words, a lot of us might go bonkers.

There is an important difference though between this ordinary mental laziness, and the sterile prefabricated language which is becoming so common today. Our everyday speech develops, by and large, out of our simple and spontaneous meetings with other individuals, at work, school, in the family or whatever. As a result, there will be a tremendous variety of expression, corresponding to the variety of personalities we encounter from day to day, the type of work we do, and the sort of people who might influence us in our thinking.

If, for example, we have a deep affection or admiration for a particular individual, we will often pick up on their mannerisms or turns of phrase. This sort of human exchange is part of the natural process of assimilating language to our personality. Language is a vital part of our life’s work in shaping our own nature. As Shakespeare understood perhaps better than anybody else, the words we use are as much about our dialogue with ourselves and the determination of our own character as they are about conveying our thoughts and sentiments to others.

Sterile language is a very different business. This language is the outcome not of spontaneous human exchange, but of bureaucratic procedure and business formula. Ordinary language may be unexceptional most of the time, but at least it is alive and open to the influence of personality. It can become something more than pure words as it is beaten into the shape of millions of different personalities. Sometimes people can say things which would appear mundane on the page, but when embodied can acquire a distinctive character.

The new sterile language on the other hand is dead, in the sense that it can never be assimilated to the character, can never become a seamless part of our selves. It can only be taken up, used, then passed on, unchanged, to somebody else for re-use, like an old bin-liner. To say, ‘In a modern world, it is disappointing that the classical elite cannot embrace change’, is to recycle a statement originated, not even by another human being, but by a management process. The more somebody speaks this sort of stuff, the more they become an instrument of a process that will always remain external to them and dominate them. Rather than language being an instrument of their own will and personality, they become an instrument for the circulation of the language.

So it is even worse than people recycling a given language. In reality they are the objects of the language rather than its subjects, the language recycles the people, not the other way around. Haylie Ecker has, in some degree, replaced Tony Blair in the circuit of the sentence; Blair, in turn has replaced thousands of functionaries and managers through whom the sentence passed before him.

Perhaps then we could put forward a new way of describing the authorship of the Runnymede Trust report and future reports like it. What we should say is that the report was written (or wrote itself) through its authors, rather than that it was written by them. This would allow for the indubitable fact that if you replaced the entire committee with a completely different one and charged it with the task of drawing up a report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain, the same report (mutatis mutandis) would have written (or even ridden?) itself through them.

The advent of a sterile language that circulates its instruments might explain the tenacity of a certain article of faith you hear expressed across the entire spectrum, from business theorists to left-wing academics, namely the belief that ‘we are all constituted through language’. This phrase always conjures up an image for me of something like wallpaper paste being ‘constituted’ through water. This must be what it’s like for those who write stuff like the Runnymede: the brain starts as a dry powder, which then takes on a lifelike quality when put through the language. There is also a threatening element to it, that the rest of us will be constituted through language, whether we like it or not.

In this, the Runnymede reminds me of the horror movies, in which the alien mutants seem possessed of one overwhelming desire – to make everybody like them.

Mark Ryan is the creative director of the Institute of Ideas.

(1) The Runnymede Trust report, ‘The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain’, was published by Profile Books on 11 October 2000, and is available here

(2) Haylie Ecke is quoted in the Daily Telegraph on Monday 16 October 2000, here

(3) Tony Blair made his speech to the Women’s Institute on 7 June 2000. See the Guardian report, 8 June 2000, here

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Topics Politics


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