In the digital age, words are increasingly important, with some taking on entirely different meanings in the digital world. Benjamin Peters’ new book, Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture presents modern humans as linguistic creatures whose cultural, economic, political, and social relations are inseparable from these “keywords”. Recently, Peters took the time to answer some questions about the book:
Why digital keywords? Why now?
BP: “Brexit” and “Trumpmemtum.”
What are these but marked keywords that—together with, say, the trendy new phrase “dumpster fire”—trigger anxieties very much alive today? What work do such words do?
40 years ago, in 1976, the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams published his classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, establishing a critical and ongoing project for taking seriously the work of over 100 words in postindustrial Britain. This book, taking Williams as its (all too) timely inspiration, seeks to refresh the keywords project for English-language information societies and cultures worldwide.
This book seeks to change the conversation about the digital revolution of language at hand. The real world may not be made out of language but our access to it surely is. Modern humans are linguistic creatures: our cultural, economic, political, social, and other relations cannot be separated from the work our words do. And as everyone who has ever put pencil to paper knows, our words do not always oblige. This is especially true in the age of search. Digital keywords are both indispensable and tricky. They are ferociously important and often bite back.
Digital Keywords also seeks to offer a teachably different approach to “digital keywords” than currently championed, as a simple Google search will reveal, by the meddling reach of search engine optimizers (SEO). No older than the OJ Simpson trial and valued at no less than $65 billion (about the economy of Nebraska), the SEO industry is arguably the dominant approach to taking keywords seriously online at the moment: and yet reason strains at the massive capital flows that, say, the term “insurance” alone commands. SEO, with its shady markets of pay-per-click advertising and results manipulation, cannot be the best approach to working with digital keywords.
How else might we begin (again)?
I’m hooked. So which keywords does the book take up? And what makes those words key?
BP: Let me answer that in reverse. As editor I figured I had a choice: I could either start by choosing the words I thought were key for the information age and then find people to write about them, or I could invite the best contributors to the project and then let them choose their keywords. As it happens, this volume does both. On the one hand, the appendix lists well over 200 candidate keywords—from access to zoom—and we’ll be soliciting other keywords to that growing list on the scholarly blog Culture Digitally this July.
On the other hand, the 25 words featured in this book are “key” simply because the scholars that populate this book demonstrate that they are. That may sound tautological, but I actually uphold it as the high standard in keyword scholarship: a word is key because it does meaningful social work in our lives. It is the task of each essay to prove such work. The reader too is invited to take up Williams’ search for themselves and to test these essays accordingly: do they convince that these terms, once understood, are somehow tectonic to the modern information society and culture—and why or why not? Which words would you add—and why?
Fair enough. Can you give us a sample of what the authors claim about their keywords?
BP: Sure thing. The freely available extended introduction critically frames the project as a first step toward a grammar for understanding terministic technologies; it also summarizes each essay and draws critical connections between them, so I won’t do any of that here. Since the book itself is organized alphabetically by keyword, I’ll list the essays alphabetically by author last name. Rosemary Avance critically reclaims community online and off, Saugata Bhaduri risks the collective action baked into gaming, Sandra Braman tackles Williams’ keyword flow in information systems, Gabriella Coleman decrypts hackers and their crafts, Jeffrey Drouin takes on document surrogates in copy cultures, Christina Dunbar-Hester critically appraises the gender in computing geeks, Adam Fish reflects on what mirror is doing in data mirroring, Hope Forsyth grounds the online forum in ancient Rome, Bernard Geoghegan telegraphs back the origins of modern information, Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the omnipresent algorithm, Katherine D. Harris unpacks the digital archive, Nicholas A. John rethinks sharing cultures online, Christopher Kelty unearths root causes and consequences of participation, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen separates democracy from digital technologies, John Durham Peters seeds an outpouring of the cloud in cloud computing, Steven Schrag reworks memory and its mental and mechanical discontents, Stephanie Ricker Schulte repossesses personalization, Limor Shifman reanimates the meme online, Julia Sonnevend theorizes events beyond media, Jonathan Sterne and I, separately, deconstruct the analog and digital binary, Thomas Streeter pluralizes the internet, Ted Striphas rereads culture alongside technology after Williams, Fred Turner goes Puritan on the Silicon Valley prototype, and Guobin Yang launches the book with the de-radicalizing of activism online.
Who is the audience for this book? Who are you writing for?
BP: Students, scholars, and general interest readers interested in the weighty role of language in the age of search in particular and the current information age in general. Ideally, each essay will prove plain and short enough (average length 3000 words) to sustain the attention of the distracted undergraduate, substantial enough to enrich the graduate students, and pointed enough to provoke constructive criticism from the most experienced scholar. Of course this ideal will not hold uniformly across this or any other volume, but perhaps this group of contributors delivers on the whole, I must say, and that is enough for this editor.
I’m also excited to note that later this year Princeton University Press also plans to release for free download my teaching notes for this book. These notes aim to offer in an easily editable format enough material to teach the book as the main course text for a semester-long undergraduate or graduate course in media and communication studies. We hope this will benefit courses worldwide. Meanwhile, the scholarly blog Culture Digitally maintains, with Princeton University Press’ generous support, the early drafts of fair share of the published essays here.
Benjamin Peters is assistant professor of communication at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is also affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.