Language Is a Virus
Last month I attended Survival of the Beautiful, a day-long event where “artists and scientists ponder(ed) the aesthetics of evolution.” I was very excited to see Laurie Anderson speak, since I’ve been a lifelong fan, and her manner of speech is so lovely and melodic, it could make reading the phone book sound like the soupiest and most intoxicating of bedtime lullabies.
After I got home, I searched YouTube for old Anderson clips and found this one, “Language Is A Virus”:
The above video is so compelling, but also interesting for The Viral Media Lab site, since we study “good viruses” (positive memes) here and we follow the viral video trail to see how a good or generous idea can spread through the web and change the world for the better. In many ways, language is a virus, and our words have power and meaning. We mimic each other, find solace in a familiar chorus, sing along. On the internet, language travels fast. It can change people, “infect” those around us, spread good ideas, develop into mantras, saturate our world and synch with our hearts to collectively find a new rhythm. Our language changes us. And then we dance.
A song about language as a virus (a cultural virus) was also interesting to me at the time because I had bookmarked this fascinating article in Discover Magazine by Mark Changizi, called “Are We ‘Meant’ to Have Language and Music?” From the article:
I believe that language and music are, indeed, not part of our core—that we never evolved by natural selection to engage in them. The reason we have such a head for language and music is not that we evolved for them, but, rather, that language and music evolved—culturally evolved over millennia—for us. Our brains aren’t shaped for these pinnacles of humankind. Rather, these pinnacles of humankind are shaped to be good for our brains.
I love the idea that our language and music “viruses” — and our method for spreading memes and songs and thoughts and ideas — culturally evolved for us.
Scott Snibbe, the digital artist and designer of Bjork’s Biophilia app was also at Survival of the Beautiful event, and he talked about the process of creating and developing Bjork’s multimedia project. It was amazing to explore the educational science app and delve into a spinning mobile of stars and sounds. Each dot in the sky corresponded with a song about science. The visually-enhanced “Virus” song was especially appealing to me, because it used language and music, together with gorgeous animations that emerged from a manually-spun constellation, to teach us about a virus. It brought us inside the virus of words and sounds and song while showing us a frighteningly beautiful image of a moving virus invading a cell. As the virus hypnotically transformed the cells and slowly took over the organism entirely, I started to become aware of a haunting meta-meaning of language as a virus. So I infect you with it now: