“The mere fact that language develops reality doesn’t make reality unreal. Even phantoms can become real; but then, of course, reality becomes ghostlike.” – Uwe Poerksen
Most people would assume that they know the ‘meaning’ of the two words ‘information’ and ‘development’ since they commonly flounce their way across the daily papers. But if you really think about it, how can these terms be described?
What sound-image do they produce? Is there a Platonic ‘pure form’ to which they adhere? In essence, what the hell do they really signify? The word ‘information’ comes from the Latin ‘informatio’ which can be translated to mean “training, correction, instruction” or “image and imagination.”
Uwe Poerksen, the author of Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, suggests that the word only started to make an appearance in German dictionaries in the early 19th century; whereas in English, it later came to represent several designated meanings: as instruction, investigation, and message or report.
However, in the 1950’s and 60’s, the word was appropriated by the sciences of cybernetics and information theory; though its definition in the realm of cybernetics is quite distinct. In a paper entitled “What is Information?”, Bernhard Hassenstein illustrates how the word is conceived: “The informatio content of a phenomenon, symbol, or signal has the same significance as a quantitative statement about the probability that something will appear somewhere.”
Anyway, by the time it had been churned out of the labs, the new word had displaced its old meanings almost entirely. ‘Information’ re-entered the sphere of the vernacular with a new sense of legitimacy and authorization. ‘Information’ had become something ‘real’.
As Poerksen states:
“From ‘information’ as an action in time or an event, right up to the description of a result, and the use of the word as a name for an object, the transitions were smooth… Since the 1970s… the meaning has shifted completely, away from something happening in time toward its target. ‘Information’ has become predominantly a description of a result or of a kind of object.”
By axing the etymological roots of the word, the new term became a free agent, a clone that could roam through discourse with the mask of its predecessor: a word with no referent.
The word ‘information’ has been disembedded from a specific place or locale becoming an untouchable commodity that has acquired an exchange value. From this point, it becomes evident that those that do not possess ‘information’ are the sufferers of the manufactured notions of ‘information deficits’ and ‘information gaps’.
In fact, it is fair to say that today whole economies are arrested and are becoming dependent, in part, by their apparent ‘lack’ of a hold over an intangible and indefinable commodity of words. This is where the Western remedy of ‘development’ marches in.
Again borrowed from the domain of science, the word’s original usage denoted the natural growth or process through which living organisms reached their mature state. However, between 1759 (Wolf) and 1859 (Darwin), the term also came to imply a process toward not only a complex full-form, but also a more refined and ‘perfect’ form.
This definition still survives in contemporary dictionaries.
Furthermore, in the biological sense, deviations from this process (i. e.organisms which do not follow this evolution) are considered ‘abnormal’ or ‘pathological’.
According to Gustavo Esteva, in 1768 the biological metaphor was appropriated into the social sphere by Justus Moser who used it to denote a process of gradual social change. Moser spoke of Entwicklung in describing political situations as almost natural processes.
After being picked up by various esteemed scholars (e.g. Hegel, Marx, Darwin) the expression was then leaked back into the vernacular where, as Esteva writes, “… it acquired a violent colonizing power, soon employed by the politicians. It converted history into a programme: a necessary and inevitable destiny.”
‘Development’ shifted from its grammatical status, a reflexive verb, to its current application as a noun. The word shows all the traits of being plastic, having lost its precise significance. “[The word ‘development’]… is now a mere algorithm whose significance depends on the context in which it is employed.
It may allude to a housing project, to the logical sequence of a thought, to the awakening of a child’s mind, to a chess game or to the budding of a teenager’s breasts. But even though it lacks, on its own, any precise denotation, it its firmly seated in popular and intellectual perception.
An it always appears as an evocation of a net of significances in which the person who uses it is irremediably trapped” (Gustavo Esteva, The Development Dictionary). As with ‘information’, all of a sudden a ‘lack’ could be proclaimed and, on January 20, 1949, President Truman gave birth to the word ‘underdeveloped’. Suddenly, two billion people acquired a pathology.
Today, two-thirds of the population are quarantined by the mark of the term. In contrast to the developed nations, a new condition now existed, a ‘lack’, and one that needed to be filled.
“The metaphor of development gave global hegemony to a purely Western genealogy of history, robbing peoples of different cultures of the opportunity to define the forms of their social life…
The very discussion of the origin or current causes of underdevelopment illustrates to what extent it is admitted to be something real, concrete, quantifiable and identifiable: a phenomenon whose origin and modalities can be the subject of investigation.
The word defines a perception. This becomes, in turn, an object, a fact.” The word has become real. Like a recalcitrant cartoon that escapes from its fiction, it enters the world of its maker and demands to be heard. But what are the implications of such terms? Why is this important?
The words on this page certainly do not have a life of their own, do they? Plastic words are substantial in that they function in today’s bureaucratic societies as commands; words are passed on from one individual to the next in the form of action. Open or empty words that refer to everything and nothing, can easily be shaped in order to obscure the ‘reality’ of the agenda that underlies them.
“The whole art of politics today is to whip up popular indifference.” -Jean Baudrillard
We are told that the ‘Third World’ needs to join the ‘information revolution’ in order to ‘leapfrog’ into the future. But again, what is ‘information’? Is it e-mail, teleconferencing, web-pages, education, news or statistics that will solve the problems of these populations?
Will the rush to buy and institute the new ‘inf
ormation technologies’ from the ‘developed world’ assist those who are ‘virtually’ starving to death? In their desire to ‘catch up’ to their ‘superior’, ‘developed’ neighbours in the north, many countries have now been forced into tight subordinate economic roles.
That is, ‘development’ really means that they continue to produce for export; suffer from great reductions in social spending and state subsidies; have sold off much of their valuable land to the private sector; and have been coerced to open their markets to foreign trade and investment. ‘Development’ also means the relocating of thousands of peoples from their homes for ‘construction projects’ that are imposed by foreign states in their own interest. As a project, the word becomes billions of dollars in loans (a.k.a. debt) which keeps these nations in an economic gridlock. In fact, many countries owe and pay back far more than they receive from development institutions such as the World Bank.
That is, more often than not, the money for ‘development’ circulates right back into the pockets of the ‘developers’ themselves, and it is by employing these lovely little euphemisms that it all gets stitched up so seamlessly.
These cloned words have taken on a life of their own, having been baptized by science they move with a new ‘presence’. They needn’t have any real meaning anymore; in fact, that’s the whole f*cking point. They have become action – processes that have become objects. Be careful ‘cus these are the official words of our time.
These are words with no soul.