A Crash Course
on the Letter “Ł”
Any attempts to transparently convey the words of one language in another are doomed to failure. Our biweekly installations of the Alphabet of New Culture are an attempt to bridge the alphabet gap between Polish and English, but sometimes the chasm between the two is too wide, and on rare occasions, there is simply no way to span the divide.
This edition of the Alphabet is an example of the latter. The Polish version of this article features one of the most characteristic and conspicuous of the Polish letters, “Ł”, as in “łączność” (connectivity). Present in several West Slavic languages and dialects, as well as in a handful of Native American scripts, the character is known as “L with stroke”. It was historically used in Polish to represent what linguists call the “dark L”, which sounds much like the L sound used in modern English. Since then, the sound has evolved into what phoneticians describe as a voiced labio-velar approximant – or what most English speakers would simply call a “W” (as in “Wikipedia” or “wireless”).
Keep an eye out for the character on maps (Łódź), in history books (Jagiełło, Wałęsa), popular names (Michał, Paweł, Łukasz), and of course, articles on connectivity (łączność).
The story of connectivity may be analysed through anecdotes – by looking at the history of failed connections and technological mishaps. The first message sent over ARPANET, the network that later evolved into the internet, crashed the system as the G in “LOGIN” was being typed. This was just another setback in a long chain of disasters in connectivity. Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on his pants while preparing an experiment in his laboratory, and thus initiated the world’s first telephone conversation to summon his assistant. Samuel Morse, as if not entirely convinced in the success of his telegraph, and as if to somehow question its usefulness, wrote the words “A patient waiter is no loser” in his first message. The trope can be followed deeper into history, perhaps ending with the fate of the messenger who delivered the news of the Greek victory at Marathon to Athens. But if all these events prove anything, it is that humankind has desperately sought to achieve and improve connectivity.
The messages that we swap with each other are what constitutes our common culture, and culture is what we believe has the power to keep us together: a common culture, a common identity. But at a more basic level, communities are formed through the very existence of connectivity. The communiques transmitted can be next to non-existent, even a simple “OK”. Or they may bear no message at all; in many situations, a lack of response is a message in itself. It’s a truism to state that this form of contact is increasingly a result of the media in our lives. In order to connect, we must first “plug in”. Hence the ever-growing need to be constantly “online”, within range of our common network, not just on the internet. This is plainly visible in how telephone decorum has changed: we used to turn off our cellphones, whereas now we merely silence them.
In these mediated times, it is hard to determine what the word “society” means. Some writers, among them John Urry, claim that the social sciences will simply have to do without the term. A much simpler alternative would be to follow the network of ties and connections. Not just between people, but between humans and their devices, and between devices themselves. Returning to the real world, let us consider this example: when we buy a newspaper, we come into fleeting contact with the paper we carry under our arm and the cashier from whom we bought it. And the barcode on the front page enters into an even more ephemeral connection with the store’s price scanner. We are enveloped in a dense network of connections; “society” may just as well be referred to using the term “connectivity”.
In the era of culture 2.0, the scale of connectivity is growing in at least two ways. Increased connectivity affects our relationships with our loved ones, our ability to come in touch with strangers, and our sense of identity and place in the world. The source of these changes – as has become the norm in our alphabet – are digital technologies: intercontinental fiber-optic cables, satellites, mobile phones, computers, GPS, and of course, the internet. Alexander Galloway described that last element as the modern world’s source of gravity; it can also be compared to a great bucket of glue that we all dip into. It is the internet’s unique “point-to-point” architecture that makes it a kind of social glue. It was designed to facilitate reliable and cheap communication between arbitrary points in the network, in circumvention of any filters and intermediaries. Thanks to this design philosophy, every user can transmit whatever content they please, but can also provide access to new forms of communication built on top of the infrastructure of the internet. Content is like a trap that can ensnare other users, and services are the glue that allows people to connect.
The list of connecting protocols that each of us has at our disposal is thus extensive: from growingly-archaic e-mail, through nearly forgotten IRC channels, to the now commonplace instant messaging and social media, and the recent hit, microblogging (although something new is surely waiting just over the horizon). The result is an explosion of connections, an explosion of connectivity. The reason McLuhan’s “global village” and Millgram’s “small world” (in which there is no more than six degrees of separation between any two inhabitants of the globe) are considered such hackneyed visions is precisely because they have come true.
Firstly, we have all become like stamp collectors or members of the mail-art movement: capable of ignoring space and seeking out people who share similar interests all over the globe (“Ukulele players of the world, unite!” – or take the computer hackers who join forces on large, highly complicated software projects). Secondly, as we travel the world, we drag our network of connections with us, keeping ourselves in touch with our homes and loved ones via networked laptops, international mobile phones, or if all else fails, the internet cafés that we track down like oases in the desert. This incessant connectivity has its downsides, of course – it shifts the border between the private and the public, tearing down the wall between work and free time. Any form of technology that makes communication more efficient is also, in the words of Brian Holmes, a “portable instrument of control”. From this point of few, perhaps we should be thankful that devices have a way of failing. Just like the e-mail system that swallowed up this article for dozens of hours as we were collaborating on it, initially provoking irritation, and later amusement. After all, no messenger had died of exhaustion; no one had even spilled acid on their pants. The unreliability of technology made us lose connectivity for a moment, even though we didn’t realise it at the time. In today’s world, it’s a luxury that few can afford.
translated by Arthur Barys