Like it means something

File:Facebook like thumb.pngJames Gleick’s The Information starts with a simultaneous appearance in 1948, both of the first transistor and the first scientific discussions of ‘the bit’ as a fundamental unit of measurement. Overall, the book tells the story of how those two technologies — the engineering breakthrough contained in that now-ubiquitous miniaturized form of digital storage and the scientific paradigm shift of that now-universal way of measuring just what is being stored — conspired together to transform our experience of the world. His intention is to recapture some of the credit for the massive social upheavals occasioned by the digital revolution on behalf of ideas: not to reject the importance of the technical knowledge that allows us to build resistors, but to make room as well in the historical account for the radical shift in theoretical knowledge that renders it even sensible to imagine DNA as speech, tennis scores as music or an image as a coded message. Thinking about how to get more conversations over the same phone line, or how to ensure a message has been received correctly, or how to fit more patient data into a smaller space, or how to make a recorded song sound more like the original, will in each case require some metric of how much of the thing you have. We ended up in a world where we not only came up with measurements for each case, but the same measurement for every one. Here’s Gleick on how big a change that represented:

For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague — force, mass, motion, and even time — and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed.

In my own work, trying to capture how policy makers and the state imagine capital (including in my recent rambling thoughts on the subject) I wrestle a lot with a similar set of transformations that occurred in the birth of finance as a discrete field. I just took a three day seminar on the history of financial crises and no one but seemed to think it much mattered that ‘finance’ didn’t exist as a coherent object of reference until the 20th century, and lacked much of its current valence until the 1970s. Finance was a word that meant the means or capacity to pay one’s debts, and by the late 19th century, also came to refer to careful thinking about income and expenses. There was banking (and banking failures), money (and currency crises), public finance (and power and territory reordered in the service of paying off royal debts). But when the word gets used today, it can’t be disentangled from images of the Wolves of Wall Street, can’t help but act as mediator between the interest rates set by the Fed and the dividends paid out by Apple (on which, see JW Mason’s solid analysis), can’t escape from a seemingly natural home in ‘the markets.’

For those in the know, the constitution of finance inevitably depends, in some inchoate way, on the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision; for those who don’t, the Basel Committee is just one part of an arcane object, or one location in a country lying beyond the economic frontier, necessary but dangerous, complicated and obscure, wild but tamable for those who have the right kind of knowledge. But that obscurity results partially from a gradual expansion of referents over the last 200 years, from a term with a narrow meaning little differentiable from ‘bookkeeping,’ to a bloated pastiche that includes practices which used to be derided as immoral ‘speculation,’ sold as ‘insurance’, offered as opportunities for ‘investment’, or understood as ‘depositing money in a bank.’

But it occurred to me today that the transformation of the world hand in hand with the transformation of the word is not always a process that’s driven by the search for ordered, scientific clarity.

Consider, for example, that for the generation born after 1998, there will never be a world without a ‘like’ button. In the interaction with facebook, ‘like’, as verb, takes on an active, social sense slightly askew from its prior usages. When I was 15 years old, liking Radiohead meant I possessed a preference that was stationary, inert and internal, ready to be dragooned into action only once I was forced to choose between alternatives, a thing I might take out to to show a potential friend or choose to keep to myself, a feeling that related me as much to myself as to a network of my teenage classmates. To like something in the facebook era by contrast not only to have something, but is in the stronger sense to act. It is is to make a mark in the world. ‘To like’ becomes not only to possess an internal orientation — a feeling or an affect or an emotion — but to engage in a form of communication, one directed to a crowd of friends and acquaintances, plus a less-than-predictable network of relations of relations. In being inseparable from this act of communication, ‘to like’ something in this way leaves behind the world of private preferences, secret pleasures, silent joys.

The meaning of words lies not only in their use but in the networks of incoherent, sometimes contradictory meanings they are used to express. Words divide up the world into manageable categories, leaving certain senses behind even as they pick up new ones, picking up certain meanings and abandoning others. Perhaps the current generation will never use ‘like’ in ways  that are noticeably different from how I do. But it is one possible future of the word, and of the world. To finance is no longer limited to its original sense in English of paying a ransom to release a prisoner. Nor is liking something bound to have quite the same freight, or carry quite the same information, as when we were young.