The inbred lovechild of an emergent Silicon Valley and America’s world class military-industrial-academic complex, a consumer-accessible internet took its first breaths as the Soviet Union took its last. With that, a decade of banal decadence, one where the collective consciousness of America and its subsidiaries—gripped by the mad scramble to get to the bottom of the deal with airline food—turned into the formative years of a technology that’s become our primary vehicle on the road to pandemonium (or hell). An oft neglected consequence of the internet’s insidious hijack of public life, if any such thing remains to be hijacked, is the fact that it’s very subtly nudged everybody towards speaking a certain west-Germanic tongue. The internet plays out in American English.
The unofficial language of Cyberspace, English seeps into every one of its virtual crevices; from prodigal South Asian programmers relegated to the grimdark underbelly of Dubai to unrelenting Singapore-born Chinese law students who easily outclass their Harvard 2028 peers, everybody online speaks it. The medium is a set of 26 characters and a number of additional sounds represented by their combination, the message that the sounds of vampiric off-white have triumphed over all other tones of beige. Historical accident has locked us into an Englisch-sprache spiral; a tool that facilitates the acceleration of both production and consumption of text media was created just as the world’s penultimate generation found itself thrust into a new world, this being one where the Anglosphere’s airborne and seaborne tendrils were sliding over the horizon into Eurasia’s last stronghold. Everybody’s terminally online, and online is terminally English. Twenty years in one direction or the other and either Russian or Chinese would have been the lingua pacis, but instead the mantle of a new one-world tongue belongs to Shakespeare and, more so, Seinfeld.
To reiterate my thesis in the plain English of the internet: the advent of the web coincided with what could have been a brief global hegemony of the English language, but its ravenous thirst for content perpetuated the conditions of its spawn. The new series of tubes was a means by which written media could be reproduced in obscene quantities, and as a result of its coincidence alongside the apex of English predominance it fostered an utterly overwhelming explosion of Angloscriptual text. Obviously, there’s more to this than mere writing—we live in a golden age of media consumption, and much of that media, the vast majority if we look at it in terms of digital storage space, comprises audio and video.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself once and I’m not going to do it again before the midway point. Allow me to, on my third attempt, furnish a simple argument. The internet allowed, to a greater degree than anything previous, writing to democratize and the habit of reading to universalize, these tendencies in turn creating the conditions for mass replication and massive-er production of textual material. Mass replication and massive-er production of textual material then ensured that whatever was being produced would continue to be produced. Monkey see, monkey do; monkey read, monkey write. All is communicated through norms generally replicated, occasionally adapted, from previous media, and because this internet debacle all unfolded at the moment of English’s final triumph over Russian—a victory that followed its linguistic levelling of the other Great Powers over the previous two centuries—the training for today’s media generators (you, I, BBC, CGPT, among others) consists primarily of English text.
LA LANGUE MONDIAL EST NOUVEAU [THE WORLD LANGUAGE IS NEW]
Seinfeld is a wonderful thing. Birthed from the talented and brilliantly vacant minds of Larry David and Mr. Seinfeld himself, it is a show that takes place in a what appears to the uncritical viewer as a void of historical context; so long as we acknowledge the material markers of life in the 1990’s, Seinfeld could be anywhere. It’s all aloof enough that one might imagine George as acquainted with a post-modernized Pontus Pilate or Tamerlane as with the very real concepts of Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin. It might seem that you could, without jeopardising the essence of the show, replace the man at the bodega with whom Kramer barters over the price of an apple with an Americanized Ea-Nāṣir dressed in a corduroy jacket and baggy jeans—Cosmo would be just as comfortable airing his grievances over an order of copper. It goes without saying that this is not the case, Seinfeld is a vivid illustration of the culmination of 200 years of mechanical industry, a poignant reflection on the Cold War and the lull in history that followed it. When we watch Seinfeld, we see the context behind which lies the aforementioned historical accident, and within which the internet would soon launch production in the English word factory through the stratosphere.
In order to explain this state of affairs, it’s necessary to recount the half-millenium of accidents that preceded it and set the stage for it to occur. You are not stupid (or so I hope), and it need not be mentioned that the meteoric rise of English as an international language of commerce was made possible by the meteoric rise of the English as naval hegemons. The British Empire was, by as early as the 18th century, a ravenously expanding thalassocracy composed of enough tropical islands to cover an area larger than the Eurasian Steppe. In addition to encouraging the use of English by foreign traders, bankers, and merchants, it also dispersed a mass of tired, poor, huddled masses to new lands, masses that served as vehicles by which the language spread. Linguistic dominion, at least before the advent of technocapital singularity (or whatever other made-up word you use to refer to what guides the current state of affairs), was inseparable from empire, and as far as empires go the British endured more effectively and spread itself more generously than its peers. That said, however, the British were not the first of their kind.
Of course, it is easy to see why treasure junks of the Ming didn’t spread their Chinese across the world or why we don’t speak a dialect of Phoenecian—ceramic industries have nothing on those of the 19th century in terms of scale. But earlier in the Modern period, the Spanish and Portuguese maintained an equally unshakeable grip over a smaller world of maritime trade and colonial exploit, the linguistic fallout of which echoed well into the 20th century. France, too, held its own as far as the 1960s, and Charles DeGaulle’s commitment to the battle against the giant, red bearclaw of oriental despotism coupled with the fetishism of the chanson genre and French dominance in book stores should have warranted some kind of rivalry, no? The Germans, despite their hopeful grasp at the post-WWI world stage, failed to secure any bragging rights as the default language for international commerce; to what would likely be the great dismay of Hitler and Himler, excitement surrounding the German language is limited to overconfident philosophy buffs. Indeed, swathes of Middle Eastern immigrants do learn it in order to argue over genocides and ethnicities that have little relevance to their night at Berghain, but that’s all. Why?
Two factors distinguish the linguistic consequences of British dominion from those of its rivals and peers. The first of these is the temporal area the British occupied: the later early modern period lent itself to linguistic conquest far more than the early early modern. The British Empire won its battles—cementing its place with the Seven Years War, winning the Scramble for Africa, outperforming in multiple Opium Wars, and somehow pulling through both World Wars—at the right time. Because its victories coincided with the Industrial Revolution and its Consequences™, the empire to which the English language was attached was alive (though not well by any means) at the advent of the internet in the post-war period. Since imperium was still kicking in some capacity, its economic and cultural institutions were too, and these are the creatures that first set up shop in the virtual realm–geopolitics and opportunism, not any inherent fact of the English language or its speakers, are what brought us to this current state of affairs. This code had the astonishing luck of existing at the tail end of history, surviving just long enough to be present as a global economic and cultural powerhouse at the inauguration of the subsequent powerhouses that themselves birthed the net. More yet, it lived to see the beautiful, blue glow of the early World Wide Web.
This brings us to the second factor: the United States of America. First a rowdy colony and antagonistic antithesis to Britain’s northernmost territories, the United States grew, over the course of two centuries, into an instrument to maintain the legacy of the English’s vernacular in the absence of their own empire. In its rambunctious climb to the tip of a pecking order of nations, bolstered by the cataclysms of the 20th century and decadence of the 19th, America became like a linguistic trust tasked with the amplification of the language’s speakers following the death of its progenitors. It replicated the literate institutions responsible for ensuring English’s stewardship of the world’s bookstores, bodegas, and concierge desks, happening to do so at the very moment the net came into being. Yale, Brown, and Harvard answered St. Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge; Rawls and Rorty answered Mill and Mandeville; most importantly, the world’s publishing houses began to take up shop in New York, now rivalling London. Though the British Empire was now gone, relegated to the great game of Risk in the sky, its successor quickly filled the void and took its place as the central node in a naval and economic web of power spanning the globe. More yet, the Americans managed to revolutionize the colonial process, converting their Liberalism to a new Liberalism, Neoliberalism, if you will. With this, they were able to export English at an as-of-yet unprecedented rate. Where previously the British built schools to teach English, the Americans managed to build a world economy where smaller nations (bordering on colonies if I may be so honest) were motivated to teach English in their own schools; it exported the responsibility to teach English to its economilitary tributaries, a more efficient means of mushrooming its reach.
The British Empire existed not only at the right time to graze the internet age, but also at the right time to spawn an entity that continues to persist into its terminal phases. The internet was born in the United States, a polity whose infancy occurred in English and whose adolescence thus unfolded under its use. English permeated the first industrial empire, and it had the first post-industrial neo-empire, and both of these watched the birth of the internet as we know it, the latter’s role to be explained in the next section.
ПОБЕДА ПО УМОЛЧАНИЮ [WIN BY DEFAULT]
Aired in 1994, “The Gymnast” is among a surprisingly small class of episodes where Seinfeld and company encounter a Soviet subject. Jerry’s exploit this time is Katya, a Romanian gymnast with a curiously Russian name; there is an air of misery surrounding the woman, not only because she has to endure the presence of George. By the time “The Gymnast” aired, four years had elapsed since the execution of Nicolae Cicesceau and the subsequent announcement by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that the events of 1990 were in accordance with perestroika. Reaching television screens across the United States in November, nearly three years had passed since perestroika had given the nation its most memorable Christmas gift: the Soviet Union and its not-colonies collective meander into chaos. With the triumph of the American WorldSystem in the early 1990s, an English weltreich emerged for the second time, and there remained little by way of alternative international tongues. Where the half century since the War the world had been gripped by a tense struggle between Hemingway’s English, spread via trade routes lining first the Atlantic and later the Pacific, and Russian, spread instead through railway lines criss-crossing the steppes of the Silk Road, the latter stumbled into catastrophe in a matter of less than a decade and the former took over as the sole curator of an increasingly interconnected mess of neo-colonies. In the face of an overfed American imperial see, all alternative koine glossa gave way to the overwhelming girth of English as it forced its way into the offices and universities of everywhere integrated into the world economy. Eurasian chemical engineers, literateurs, and neurosurgeons would have to accommodate Atlantic businessmen and journalists.
Concurrent with the spastic conclusion of the Cold War was the proliferation of the internet in the consumer market, the roots of which had been growing since the beginning of that era. ARPANET—the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network—was invented in the 1960s to connect universities and installations most vital to the American military-industrial-academic complex. This is generally considered the first instance of an internet, even though compared to the internet of even the 1980s or even 70s it appears to consist of little more than tin cans on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards connected by string. By the 1980s, internet protocols (IPs) integral to the modern internet entered what was on track to be a new home for the free market. By the mid 1990s, any academic or military exclusivity the internet once had was shed so that MSN news updates could be shared on websites employing HTML and CERN-born hypertext. It’s the last evolution, the dawn of Web 1.0, that coincided with the end of the Cold War and unceremonious death of potent Communism. The unquestioned primacy of the United States was bundled with a technology whose purpose was the dissemination of information on a global scale, a scale where only English now had any place.
Over the three economically traumatic decades that have elapsed since this event, a label I feel the whole ordeal was sudden enough to warrant, the United States, its rule-based international order, and its globe-trotting market economy have begun to age out of their primes. In the time it has taken us to get here, city-centres have been gentrified, fallen into decay, and been gentrified again. White flight has come to warrant a timetable, launching increasingly small and increasingly unsustainable family units back and forth between suburban McMansions and undersized downtown apartments with every minor recession. Industries have been born, poorly raised, let run feral, and died. The amphetamine virus gripping Middle America has seemingly infected the nation, which oscillates between a maniacally dashing to and fro and bending over double on its feet. All this, and English persists. Why? Because before all this, it watched the inception of a tool the world would never be able to discard, and it attached itself to this tool like an impossible water stain on a beautiful antique table. An explosion of commerce and culture at the turn of the millenia began in English, and to switch codes so late would be such a hassle.
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“The Checks” occurs later in the Seinfeld TV run, gracing television screens in late 1996. The main plot of the episode surround’s Jerry and George’s pathetic attempt to woo a Japanese network executive into greenlighting their series, Jerry. The subplot follows Kramer as he leads three gullible Japanese tourists into bankruptcy, failing to recognize the difference in value between Japanese Yen and American Dollar and advising their spending accordingly (hijinks ensue). When questioned by Jerry and Elaine about this folly—what made him think, given the number of Yen at his guests’ disposals, that the Yen was roughly equivalent to the Dollar—he admits that he made his assumptions in light of the size of the Japanese economy. “Well, Jerry, they’re Japanese. I mean, that TV you watch, that sushi you eat, I mean, even that kimono you wear. Where do you think all that money goes, hmm?” Kramer isn’t the straight man, but his errors throughout the series often reflect exaggerated misunderstandings of the world that most Americans operate under. To the American of the 1990s, there was acknowledgement of, and in many cases anxiety surrounding, the economic rivalries that were now beginning to pop out of the woodwork. Even in the 90s, America’s spot was contested, and today its continued primacy seems uncertain at best.
Belts and roads can run the circumference of the world a million times over and the thought of invoking NATO’s Article 5 may never rear its ugly head, and English would still remain the internet’s chosen tongue. No number of losses for the West (I use this term without caution here, and insist that you treat it more critically than I) in a great geopolitical game will ever lead to a Chinese-heavy internet. That there is even a comparable mass of online media in both Chinese and English is remarkable given the restrictions placed on the use of it in China. Whereas any barely-sentient pseudointellectual can throw together an essay and find somewhere to toss it online in the Anglosphere (case-in-point), the process of screaming into a digital loudspeaker requires more tact on the other side of the Pacific. At this point, it makes little sense to discuss English’s predominance as evidence of an enduring power dynamic—established in light of an Anglohegemony, most certainly born of power relations, its continued use as the world’s premiere tongue can no longer be chalked down to Britain’s former mastery over the high seas or America’s over the global banking system. The 21st century has shown that the victors crowned in the 90’s are fast losing their status as uncontestable icons of power.
Perhaps I should revise my title, because what I seem to be discussing now is not an empire, nor has history ended—whatever happens around the Don River and South China Sea in the coming years, Fukuyama was wrong. English is now a ghost, a spectral reminder of an Anglo-American civilization that will fast disappear in the digital age even as its tongue remains. To adopt English as a second language today is to take part in the unguided worship of old geopolitics, old relations that no longer stand. For those hailing from communities for whom English is a native tongue, it’s a cargo cult directed towards the realization of a bygone Pax Americana. Replicated in language-models and what little will soon remain for the human hand, the omnipresence of English is no longer a tribute to the world’s premiere powers, but rather an itching mnemonic that recounts their former glory.
It remains to discuss said language models. If English is a ghost, the language is the spirit and these models their apparitions. These are zombie factories whose role is to reproduce media devoid of a message, to replicate what has already been said in a code whose significance as the most widespread no longer carries the set of meanings that it used to, and by the conventions of social thought still should. Barring the other likely consequences of Chat GPT and its rival models (primarily the obsoletion of white-collar human labour), their emergence at this point will undoubtedly bolster the already dizzying rate at which English content is produced. We’ll see a primordial explosion of drivel that will populate the centuries to come, that will continue to feed a Lovecraftian mass which no longer lends itself to sociological investigation.
This, I feel, adequately treats the subject at hand. When we look to the future, we find ourselves uncertain of everything but the fact that English will remain. Whether in 100 years an expanded India and China will maintain joint economic sway over a world without glaciers, or whether Kazakh steppe marauders will battle over the Caspian Desert with neo-Scythian war chiefs (equally likely), English will most likely be the bridge between them when they meet to discuss peace and war. The future’s bestselling novels, whether the mind behind them is made of circuits or neurons, will inevitably be translated to English, and it will still be the New York Times that declares them bestsellers.