By Michael Salu
On Languages and Technology
"Is there a case to suggest that language as we know it doesn't actually belong to us anymore?" 5x15 Amsterdam speaker Michael Salu explores how technology impacts languages, social behaviour and ultimately, alters our ability to perceive.

Photograph © House of Thought
This is an edited transcript of a talk Michael Salu gave at the 5x15 talk series in 2019. To listen to the full talk, click here.

Hello everyone, well I'm delighted to join this great group of speakers, so thank you 5x15.

So I have fifteen minutes, which I suppose does seem apt for this talk, particularly if one considers Andy Warhol's famous utterance about all of us eventually acquiring our own fifteen minutes of fame.

Well, I guess that we did that right?

Ok, so my work over recent years has been focused on following in real-time how technology impacts language, social behaviour and ultimately, I would argue, altering our ability to perceive.

I'd like to begin with another Warhol related anecdote.

A few years ago when I was a bachelor, living it up, I tried making use of Tinder for a while. I mean Tinder was ok, served its purpose I guess and I'm not here to moan about the changes to our dating culture so don't worry.

Though something I did notice at the time while I was using the app, was the regularity of a certain quote that is usually attributed to Marilyn Monroe (but it might not have come from her, who knows?)

Well, this quote would appear quite regularly on profiles as I swiped along.

It went something like the following:

"I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I'm out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best."

I'm sure you've seen it somewhere right?

So what then happens to our cognitive intuitions when the worlds we are experiencing are actively designed for us instead?
I was intrigued, but maybe also a little disturbed by how frequently this appeared on someone's profile.

It later inspired a short story I published which became an early chapter of the novel I've just completed entitled We Do God's Work.

God's being all the invisible forces that are shaping what we think we're thinking and feeling.

The story in question was called Dear Marilyn and the first protagonist is an unnamed gentleman that travels around the world a lot on business. And as a bachelor might do, in his downtime he might use a dating app.

But each time this man goes on a date, the date turns out to be Marilyn Monroe. It didn't matter which city in the world he was in, every single time the date was with Marilyn.

Marilyn would appear a little different each time. The differences would depend on some tangible variables, like location coordinates, altitude, time, mood and so on. These slight changes in her statistical data would offer just a little different version of her. Her hair might be tied up, or she may appear in a white dress for example, or she was in a hurry, or she was late, or she looked a bit tired, but it was always definitely Marilyn.

So that quote led me to think about how technology enables us to see how unoriginal we are.

No I'm kidding, but in a way this is true, technology shows how ordered our thinking and experiences really are and the myths we all have willingly followed. And I think language has a big role to play in this collective consciousness.

The Marilyn quote got me thinking about our archetypes in general, and how fictional they can be. and in this case, how Marilyn or an incomplete picture of what Marilyn represents can still be an archetype for a certain kind of understanding of ourselves over half a century later.

Marilyn got me thinking about the mythologies of today. Those narratives and fables that we use to decide who we are and how we perceive other people and how we want the world to perceive us.

If we're all just trying to tell everyone else a story, or we're just listening to the stories told to us, well is everything actually just fiction?

Is language itself just a fiction?

Language is whatever we use to communicate and tell stories. Be they words, images or an immortal combination of the two like today's memes.

Though we have long had media, television, radio, film and the disinformation we can spin through these spaces, today there appears to be a lot more control with how these stories are told to us and ultimately how to dictate what and how we think.

Artificial Intelligence is naturally a main talking point at the moment, but we don't seem to say so much about how prevalent more rudimentary forms of artificial intelligence, from algorithms to increasingly machine learning-based systems of structuring and distributing information have long been an invisible force in our culture, shaping decisions and stories and have long had an effect on the abstractions we perceive to understand as chance, fate, choice and so on.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested our ordering and structuring of the world is a direct result of us actively trying to sort and synthesise the data our senses absorb constantly.

So what then happens to our cognitive intuitions when the worlds we are experiencing are actively designed for us instead?

So I've been wondering, who actually owns language today?

(Now I'm not by any means an authorised linguistics expert, we have the greats like Noam Chomsky for that, I'm just rather interested in how our mythologies function and how we choose to understand each other and who that 'understanding actually belongs to. )

The last couple of decades has seen rapid and extraordinary changes to the way we live, but the speed and exponential acceleration of these changes (as predicted by Accelerationism, the techno-philosophy of the 90s) seem to be leaving behind the methods we have used to understand ourselves.

If today our thoughts, feelings and opinions are so visible and accessible on a technological plain, and given the platforms we use are private corporations and don't really belong to us, rather instead, our commodified existence appears to belong to them, and when I say them, I do of course mean a select few, then does language as we know it, actually even belong to us anymore?

Platforms are created for us to share thoughts, feelings, fears and desires. They are watched and aggregated and analysed and then in return, we are given targeted content and stories to trigger certain feelings, particularly fears. The result appears to be us thinking we adamantly believe in ideas that are essentially implanted and as we all now know this is contributing significantly to societal divisions big and small.

A lot of this is a calculated exercise, one that uses incomplete myths and stories as a primary weapon and the subtly of this strategy makes it difficult to acknowledge.

Film and video fit into this new hyper-mythology. Video became the go-to medium for us to communicate and express ourselves. Except video itself comes intrinsically bound up in mythology.

We're all used to the tropes of cinema now, we utilise them ourselves, the slow motion, the time-lapse. The parts of the story we decide to keep offscreen. The tropes of good and evil. So in a way, the language of film helps shapes our oppositional understanding of morality, sameness and otherness.

In a recent essay, I used the swarming insect as a way to talk about what I saw as the increasingly technocratic ownership of language and the resulting dictatorial drivers of perception and understanding.

What are the intangibles that drive a swarm forward? That cause it to move or find a new home, or attack.

We know about the Queen, she generally runs the show, there are many workers and carers and builders.

These swarming insects often build cities. Or at least a city that becomes home for a time until it is no longer of use. Often because of changes in the immediate environment, so after a while and some serious living and activity, the swarm eventually moves on to find a new spot to make a home. A swarm moves with certain physics and intuitions and basic biological reactions.

So while thinking about the physics of insect swarms as a metaphor for language, I decided to appropriate the concept of the singularity. Yes, I grew up watching a lot of science fiction, can't you tell?

The Singularity is ordinarily discussed as the moment the automated processes and intelligence we have constructed outrun our own neural capacities and accelerates off in its own sentience, nurtured by what we taught it and then goes on to determine what the world will be.

It occurred to me we might already be within that process, and our relinquished, dreams desires and thoughts are now the fuel that drives this process. The problem is we don't know what the end game is here, as we don't seem to have control, certainly not of language.

So if we can see this swarm as the singularity, who is at the wheel? Who is determines its physics and drives it forward and is it being fuelled by the stories we tell ourselves until we don't actually understand the stories we are telling ourselves and each other.

For example, if I made a google search on the many histories of the West African Shona spirit. I wouldn't find that much and I guess we know why that is.

We're increasingly reliant on an information age that is incomplete.

So what this does is lead us through a predetermined existence that is based on flawed and incomplete information and yes, myths about history.

And in the case of those that have been traditionally marginalised from a western perspective, they don't tend to form much of the demographic that now dictates language, namely Silicon Valley.

So why would we expect the owners of language and information to have the best interests of the marginalised or disadvantaged at heart?

And why would the AI built fundamentally be different, given, for example, racial bias already found in ai and machine learning?

I'd go as far as to argue vulnerable or marginalised groups shouldn't use corporate platforms at all as the bad increasingly outweighs the good in the era of surveillance capitalism and closing borders.

There is no way one of little power can win relying on our existing language.

Political systems and governments have been bought by corporations as is clear given the lax and even sinister moral position taken by some.

I need not name any names.

If you can permit me, I would like to read this short passage from the Italian novelist and critic Italo Calvino's collection of essays, The Literature Machine. This particular essay is called Cybernetics and Ghosts and was initially a lecture given by him way back in 1962.

"The true literature machine will be one that itself feels the need to produce disorder, as a reaction against its preceding production of order: a machine that will produce avant-garde work to free its circuits when they are choked by too long a production of classicism. In fact, given that developments in cybernetics lean toward machines capable of learning, of changing their own programs, of developing their own sensibilities and their own needs, nothing prevents us from foreseeing a literature machine that at a certain point feels unsatisfied with its own traditionalism and starts to propose new ways of writing, turning its own codes completely upside down.

As I'm sure you know AI has already written novels and has already gotten quickly fed up with the limitations of our own languages and has in one exercise actually created its own language.

So it got me thinking, shouldn't we be the ones, you know us, humans, to create a disorder within language, given the way language is now being used as military-grade weaponry?

We can take the madness of Brexit as an example of this. A nation has been split down the middle by design, not by accident. Divisions have been sowed between various micro-groups and its completely arguable given the swirl of disinformation going on behind the scenes, that we are living in the midst of a new kind of warfare. One based on obfuscation, using language.

The only reason I'm not adamant about this is because it is difficult for humanity to understand beyond the framework of the public realm and the language we have and know how to use, and unless you're an active participant in the building blocks of the future (namely code) then it will be difficult to see and understand the world on a particle level.

But that's exactly where the world is now.

If we have lost control of language, that which we have used to define ourselves for centuries, then it's arguable that the singularity is already well underway, and language on a human level as we know it and use to argue, to teach or to fall in love, is already being left behind.

So in the sense of Calvino's hypothesis, maybe we need to become some kind of new literature machines and devise new languages, new semantics, other modes of distributing autonomy, both social and economic to aim for more nuanced understanding of each other and not only in the way corporations dictating our existing language want us to?

Michael Salu is a writer, artist and critic, whose work and ideas are executed through a multidisciplinary practice. His writing, art and talks have focused on where the evolving semantics of technology, language and identity meet.

His written work has appeared in a number of literary journals, anthologies and art publications including Freeman's Journal and Catapult. He has exhibited and screened art projects internationally and is the owner and creative director of S.A.L.U, a multidisciplinary creative consultancy collaborating with clients around the globe.

Recorded at 5x15 in Amsterdam in March 2019.

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