New Times,
New Thinking.

The post-language world

Tech visionaries may dream of a wordless future, but even Elon Musk cannot disrupt the communal power of speech.

By Peter Williams

When he’s not busy doing such a good job of running Twitter/X, Elon Musk stands alone among our new tech overlords as master of the facile soundbite. In 2020, he told the podcaster Joe Rogan that our facility for language – arguably the single greatest engine of human progress, and one of the last beacons of our exceptionalism over other living things – might be made obsolete within ten years by wordless brain-to-brain communication. People would continue to talk, Musk reckoned, but only for “sentimental reasons”.

As Philip Seargeant writes in The Future of Language, this was “pure hokum”, deployed to hype an exciting technology. Musk’s Neuralink is among the companies developing brain-computer interfacing (BCI), which could enable those with locked-in syndrome and other severe neurological conditions to communicate. BCI shows promise but is a long way from retiring speech: in 2017 trial participants were able to “type” around four to eight words a minute via brain implants into a computer.

Seargeant, a linguist at the Open University who has written books on emojis and Brexit, argues that Musk exemplifies Big Tech’s utopianism, where “human life, and perhaps humanity itself, is a problem which can and should be solved by scientific innovation”. So too does Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg, who declared that the purpose of Facebook (which evolved from a “hot or not?” website for Harvard students) is to “make the world more open and connected”, and compares social media to the invention of the printing press, which “brought us closer together”.

Douglas Adams would have given the lie to such woolly, wan evangelism. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy his universal translation device the Babel fish, “by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races”, causes “more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation”. So it is with social media, which, as Seargeant writes, has “inadvertently exacerbated the querulous and irrational side of human nature”.

He agrees with Zuckerberg about the power of these platforms, however: different “communicative possibilities” do lead to “different patterns of human relations and, ultimately, to different social structures”. His book situates language at the heart of many modern crises: of mass disinformation and surveillance and the threat they pose to freedom and democracy, and the march of AI towards possible sentience.

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In ranging so widely, so quickly, it is perhaps inevitable that The Future of Language mixes the bracing with the dull. At the start it seems as though, in framing these questions, the author is trying too hard to pander to a general reader who is somewhat bored and hard of understanding. Alongside hip-teacher moves such as ranking the Star Wars trilogies in order of Anglocentricity, we get content-free sentences telling us that “language has regularly been put forward as an essential element of what it means to be human”, or that speculative fiction “isn’t bound by the limits or logic of actual events; it’s a fantasy of how the world could be”. The prose is uneven but at its best when Seargeant is exploring complex ideas, such as the screen’s status as “a modern-day equivalent of Plato’s shadow-puppets, creating the illusion of direct knowledge, while offering only a distorted view of existence”.

His chapters on “cyborg speech” and on “futureproofing the world” fizz with urgency. There are some brief allusions to Wittgenstein – who contended that man can comprehend “only what he is able to put into words” – and it would take a philosopher of that calibre to begin to properly reckon with the issues of language, AI and the nature of intelligence and sentience that Seargeant raises. But this is an excellent jumping-off point, provoking questions such as whether the mass sifting, processing and regurgitation of data could ever instil in a machine full sensory consciousness and a biological imperative to survive. Seargeant touches, too, on the many dystopian possibilities of BCI: would we be able to hide or filter our thoughts? Would they be entirely wordless and, if so, could it ultimately erase both language and the conscious, speaking self?

[See also: Books of the year 2023]

Yet you leave this book if not cheered by our future prospects, then with a renewed belief in language as “inherently creative”, offering what Noam Chomsky called “infinite expression by finite means”, and still our best way of expressing the sensory infinitude of being alive. It is an effective rejoinder to Musk, who complained that “there’s a lot of loss of information that occurs when compressing a complex concept into words”, and to his predecessors who – longing for the certitude of universal, perfect language – were “in effect trying to invent… computational language and systems of logical symbolism”. Francis Bacon, for instance, complained that words “react on” or limit understanding, “and it is this that has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive”.

Seargeant also shows how the Chinese state’s high-tech assault on privacy and dissent cannot quell its citizens’ ability to communicate, nor fully enact the Orwellian nightmare of newspeak, where censorship of language whittles down the horizons of the human imagination. When the sites of the original coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan and Hebei province, became restricted terms on Chinese search engines, people began using truncated forms and metaphors – those agents of perennial transformation. When an article critical of the Chinese government’s Covid response was blocked, people printed it backwards, or translated it into emojis, slang, Morse code or the languages of Lord of the Rings.

And Seargeant performs a useful service in properly framing the old saw that “language is always changing”, which can seem a lazy catch-all response to charges of linguistic decline, by showing how innately localised and dependent on shared knowledge and context all communication is. “Meaning isn’t just about the relationship between linguistic form and communicative intent. It also involves beliefs… [and] conventions within society about what is meaningful.” Indeed, scholars are so pessimistic about the ability of any particular language to endure that when the US Department for Energy tried to whistle up a scheme to ensure future generations don’t disturb a nuclear waste site in Nevada, text wasn’t an option, nor even a seemingly obvious sign such as the skull and crossbones. Instead, one proposal suggested breeding cats whose skin changed colour in the presence of atomic radiation, and anchoring what this signified in “cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg ‘ray cat’) and suitable proverbs and myths”.

One hole in Seargeant’s argument about creativity is that he spends little time showcasing language as an aesthetic tool. It is not often you say this in life, but what you really need here is poetry in order to fully demonstrate all that language can do. The closest we come is a brief quote from Milton, passages on Tolkien’s “linguistic aesthetic” and Anthony Burgess’s observation that: “Man’s greatest achievement is language, and the greatest linguistic achievement is to be found in… fictional work in which language is a live, creative, infinitely suggestive force.”

Which brings us back to the big men of Big Tech: visionaries, but also salesmen and middlemen who have sought to hard-wire their products into human relations. Their technology will shape our future: replace BCI implants with a sleek headset, and, as Facebook Labs put it in 2019, “all the knowledge, fun, and utility of today’s smartphones” – that’s right, all of it – will be “instantly accessible and completely hands-free”. If, once safely entombed within Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, you prefer for sentimental reasons to speak, Meta will translate between languages or modulate your accent into an elite variety of English, just as your avatar can be adjusted to omit or soften any physical failings.

But, as The Future of Language shows, it is precisely in the potential for imperfection and misunderstanding, which we might also view as nuance, irony, localism, particularity – those flashes of intimate mutual recognition between author and reader, or speaker and listener –  that give language its power; a power that is ultimately communal. In the future, perhaps the most radical and freeing choice will be to take up paper and pen, or speak or sign to someone in person. You might find it makes the world more open and connected.

The Future of Language: How Technology, Politics and Utopianism are Transforming the Way we Communicate
Philip Seargeant
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £20

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[See also: The techno-optimist fallacy]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now