Popular jargon venerates the unreal
Vancouver Courier
August 20, 2000

Thanks to our infatuation with computers, the ability to distinguish reality from unreality is becoming increasingly impaired. The proof is in our vocabulary, which is becoming as arcane and obscurantist as the mystical mutterings of your average sixth-century monk.

Take the ubiquitous (and annoying) buzzword “cyberspace,” coined by sci-fi author William Gibson. It’s meaningless. “Cyber” has nothing to do with computers—it comes from the Greek kybern, meaning to steer (or govern)—and there is no “there” there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

If I want to negotiate a deal with someone over a cappuccino and biscotto in a café, the transaction will take place in a defined area—call it “café space.” If we do business over the Internet, all that happens is each of us sends electrons over a phone line and makes his own coffee.

The Internet has no more spatial existence than does the telephone or telegraph, yet you don’t hear people burbling about “Bellspace” or “Marconispace.” “Cyberspace” is not a word in any definitive sense, but a metaphor for a metaphysical community of computers wherein anybody with a website or e-mail address can be a member.

Problem is, this metaphor isn’t treated like a literary device; through sheer repetition it has taken on real existence, like a 3-D cartoon character in a live-action movie. Cyberspace, like “information superhighway,” is absurd, so why do we need to resort to a fantasy language to describe reality?

The way we use computer lingo isn’t much different from the way early Christians spoke about the world they knew. In his TV series The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke gives the following example. A monk who came upon a rose wouldn’t say it was a flower. He’d say “Red for the blood of Christ, thorns for the pain of the devil, and green for the emerald of sincerity.” Everything that existed for him and everyone else in the monastery did so as a symbol, an icon, for something else, something religious.

What we would call the real world was to them perishable goods not worth bothering about; reality, what they needed to care about, was the imaginary, metaphysical community of the afterlife. Giving in to this obscurantism was easy. You just had to look at the invasions and poverty ravaging the cities and countryside to realize that being cut off from “the real world” behind monastery walls wasn’t so bad.

In our own way, many of us are also tuning out the real world and putting faith in an imaginary, quasi-religious reality.

Last week the Vancouver Sun referred to Britney Spears as an icon, and syndicated columnist George Will wrote that Ralph Nader has ascended to “iconic status” as the conscience of consumer culture. Last year the Wall Street Journal called financier Carl Icahn a Wall Street icon. (Icahn the icon?!) In fact, icon is now applied indiscriminately to any famous person—Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, Elvis Presley, Madonna, you name it. It’s enough to make you want to pity the famous.

Earlier this century, we began to refer to the greatest among us as stars, especially those in theatre and the movies. Their talent and charisma were thought to outshine all others; even the idea of having to look up at the stars added to the image of greatness. We still do to a large degree. But where star is a legitimate metaphor, icon is not. It’s not a comparison, but a sign or representation of an object by virtue of its similarity or analogy to that object.

Corporate logos are good examples. The Golden Arches exist only as an icon for McDonald’s, and an “N” astride the top of the world defines Netscape. In Christian art, especially before the Renaissance, renderings of angels, Apostles, Jesus, Mary et al. were cold, and distinctly unnatural. That’s because these images, often with halos, are iconic representations of divine beings. They weren’t meant to be realistic.

Thus, it dismays me to see flesh-and-blood people similarly reduced to second-order images. Sometimes that’s what they are, though, when they make commercials or lend their name to a cause. When Charlton Heston does a plug for the National Rifle Association, he turns himself into a spokesman, (an icon) for the gun lobby. But the indiscriminate use of “icon” is reducing our language to a Seinfeld-like communication about nothing. After all, ours is a culture that can utter “virtual reality” without a trace of irony.

Icons have now taken a step closer to reality with the invention of computer-generated women—Ananova, a 24-hour British newsreader and T-Babe, the world’s first virtual pop star. Now the world’s first “virtual actress,” Simone, is prepared to star opposite Al Pacino in an upcoming movie. Though voiced by an actress, Simone is the very definition of an icon—a representation of a type of person, yet inherently unreal. Why do we speak of Nader, Woods, etc. the same way?

For all the improvements technology gives us, it’s amazing to see how little people change over centuries. Today, the computer is the monastic wall that shuts out the world and creates a reassuring artificial reality. It comes with its own arcane vocabulary and iconography, and like monasticism it has the unhealthy effect of turns people’s minds away from the problems of the world toward the security of their own imagination.