February 24, 1993|By ROBERT BURRUSS

Kensington. -- The importance of language to society cannot be overstated; neither can exist without the other.

Language is the imperfect vehicle that conveys between individuals the substance of social reality; it is imperfect because linguistic social reality is always distorted, usually because of the inherent limitations of language, but also because of the conscious intent of its users.

Among the differences of languages is one that is so apparent it is hard to see: Spoken English and written English are both called English, which obscures the enormous difference between what Thoreau called ''the language heard and the language seen.''

Spoken language came first, with its emotionality, immediacy and non-durability. Then came written language, whose formality and durability became the basis of geographically extensive empires which spoken language alone could not have sustained.

The light-dependency of written language has historically made light socially important. Literate societies cannot operate in darkness where writ- ten laws and contracts literally do not exist; accordingly, darkness is a literal evil in literate societies. In non-literate societies, light and darkness have no corresponding valuations.

All things that are dependent upon the written word are dependent upon light. Moses went up the mountain, toward the light, to receive the written law of God. Later came the Western Son of God, light of life, ''the Word'' -- which was in the beginning with God, and was God, according to Saint John's paean to light.

Now, in the last hundred years, a third language type has fast been developing: Electronic Broadcast Language. It is usurping the historic, and literally divine, authority of literate language. Its non-dependence on light (from above) is even bringing the demise of the Western gods of light.

The power and authority of Electronic Broadcast Language derive from the way it combines the properties of its predecessors. It has the immediacy and emotionality of spoken language, plus the durable formality of written language; it has the power to convince simultaneously both the eye and the ear. Also, the transparency of national borders to its radiant, speed-of-light power, is making nationhood obsolete.

Languages misinform, by their nature and by the intent of their users. Electronic Broadcast Language can misinform faster and more convincingly than its ancestor languages. Where previously literal truth was that which was in literate format, the social realities conveyed by Electronic Broadcast Language are whatever the cathode ray writes on the fluorescent screen.

Several thousand years passed between the earliest use of written language and Gutenberg's discovery of a way to mass-reproduce written information. The evolution of Electronic Broadcast Language is moving faster. Gutenberg's press is to written language as the computer is to Electronic Broadcast Language. But modern computers, fast though they are, are not yet up to speed. In a few years, Electronic Broadcast Language, abetted by fast computers, will provide unimaginably immediate, authoritative, convincing and durable representations -- and misrepresentations -- of social reality.

The handwriting is, as it were, on the electronic wall: When Ted Koppel shows how he can walk on a wall on a Warsaw street while not really being there, we can see what is coming. In the 1987 NBC ''news documentary,'' ''Nuclear Power: In France It Works,'' we saw how unrelated visuals and narration, each innocuous when taken alone, can be deftly combined into a thoroughly non-objective presentation of an issue.

We can see even more dramatically what is coming in the new computer technique that is presently called ''morphing'' -- the digital animation of scenes such as the smooth-flowing flux of changing faces and races in Michael Jackson's video ''Black or White,'' and in James Cameron's ''Terminator 2,'' where digital fluids can transform, or ''morph,'' into people that can walk and even flow through steel bars. Goodyear Tire is morphing its product in its television ads, as is at least one car manufacturer.

The digital animation process called morphing is still slow and expensive. But as computers get faster, so will the morphing get faster and cheaper. In a few years we can expect to see real-time morphing, where an actor -- or any person, even a Democrat with the charisma of a Paul Tsongas -- might be instantaneously digitally transformed in looks, voice and tone, in accordance with market research data, then validated into social reality by being radiated from the televisions of the electorate/consumer/believers.

Computer-aided Electronic Broadcast Language won't even need a real person as an armature about which to wrap the digitized morph. The digi- tal product/fantasy/candidate, or resurrected Elvis, might well be made of whole software cloth, a complete digital fabrication whose reality will be validated by being on television. The winners of elections will be those digital fabrications that best represent the market-researched needs, wants and fantasies of the voter/consumers.

That is the future of Electronic Broadcast Language. We will need a new word to replace ''literal'' -- ''real by having been in literate form.'' Perhaps something like ''videral.'' The future, the social future, will be viderally as it is represented by the planet-encompass- ing Electronic Broadcast Language. The new word of God will not be in a book. It will be the word of the 15-minute morphed gods and digital synthetic candidates of computer-aided television.


Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.