There is a new language out there. It is visual. It is positive, cheerful and uplifting. Above all, it is strongly emotional. Language is a living thing. It merges and evolves according to the needs of the people. Although academies and dictionary publishers try to set rules and contain its constant developments, language remains contextual – which is to say, it varies within historical times. Changes in technology run along every societal development, and even reshape the way people communicate.
Today, our lives unfold in two parallel realms that have (at least) equal importance. Not only because we spend an exorbitant amount of hours online, but also because our digital experiences are competing in intensity with our offline social interactions. In the digital era, the boundaries between online and offline experiences are starting to become blurry.
There are many interesting – and contemporary – works that can help us understand what is happening with language in the digital era. One of them is Byung-Chul Han, a South-Korean philosopher. Han was born in 1959, and most of his work is devoted to the vices of our digital societies. The author claims we are no longer the exploited subjects of classic capitalism. In today’s technologically-driven state of late capitalism, every individual has become its own private tyrant. Repression is no longer necessary, for it has been internalized. The promising prospects of a freelance career where you can be your own boss are nothing but a mirage of freedom. In his 2007 book Psychopolitics, Han states that:
“Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”
This is how the author understands our current times. There is a reason why time management and productivity books are so popular today. The thing is, this race against oneself does not belong exclusively to professional or academic fields. The same mechanism rules every area of our lives – even our spare time, bodily image and identity. External control has been replaced by an excess of information and leisure, and amusement has been absorbed by a compelling need to become productive.
Late capitalism relies on emotional design models to create needs and promote consumerism. In the Web 3.0 era, communication is fast-paced. According to neoliberal mantras, more communication means more consumerism. Reason is slow, but emotion is almost instantaneous. In our neoliberal times, messages are heavily charged with emotion in order to promote quick, mindless reaction. Capitalist consumerism introduces emotion to create new necessities.
Han’s work is certainly pessimistic, but it helps us understand the logic behind the ways we communicate…or the ways the powers that be speak to us. But once you read Eric Sadin, his pessimism pales in comparison. Sadin, another contemporary philosopher, warns us about the dangers of the Silicolonization of the world. According to Sadin, there is another new religion besides productivity: the digitalization of the world, lead by the Silicon Valley business model. In this new digital society we are building, the amount of decisions technology is making for us gets bigger and bigger. The author compares the Silicon Valley era to the 1850’s gold rush, with a not-so-slight difference – this time, the phenomenon is planetary. Today, there is not a single institution, government or branch of science out there willing to put into question that the progress of the world lies in technology. But science and technology are far from neutral, and the Silicon Valley business model is proving to be the friendly face of neoliberal capitalism.
What Sadin is trying to convey is the fact that there is nothing fresh or progressive in Silicon Valley, and we should better start looking for alternative models of economic development.
In the meantime, what is happening in our everyday communication? During the past decade we have witnessed the fast decay of text-heavy platforms such as Blogger, LiveJournal and many more. Image has become the preferred format, which lead to the rise of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Visual content is the most impactful, but why has video become the weapon of choice? Well, video introduces the time dimension: when images are presented in quick succession, reason gives way to emotion. And emotion is good for business.
I have always wondered what’s with Instagram influencers and emojis. Do you really need that many emojis in your captions? I thought I was onto something, but then I read Wikipedia’s definition of emoji and it says that it is a Japanese word and the resemblance to the English words emotion and emoticon is purely coincidental.
Still, emojis proliferate in sponsored content and social media in general. Just look at this random food influencer’s post.
If an image is worth a thousand words, an emoji conveys a at least four or five emotions. And emotions keep the money coming in.
We have already established that today’s existence is measured in terms of productivity. Visual communication elicits and emotional response, and emotional responses are very compatible with consumeristic impulses. But visual communication is also quicker, which makes it more profitable. Influencers (may or) may not have read Han and Sadin, but they know these mechanisms. And they use them better than any advertising agency.
Is it fathomable that eventually, as a result of these new communication practices, our brain changes in shape and function? The path of evolution is actually quite long, but everything is possible for biology after a handful of centuries. But although our brain circuits are not changing shape just now, our communication habits and perceptions are indeed.
Is the future as dark as our quoted philosophers suspect? Nobody can know for sure, but the first step to escape the hamster Wheel is to notice that we are trapped in one. One thing is certain: the way we are talked to is very consumerism-friendly. But it is well within our power to do something with that language – something other than replicating it.