Why Study English? Language, Literature, and Digital Economies
There is no inherent reason to study “English,” either as a language or a body of literature, nor is there a legitimate reason to consider it a discrete “discipline” in competition with, say, “Economics” or “Political Science” or “Engineering,” except that the building of bridges in a concrete sense requires the engineer to adopt a mental state of sustained and exhaustive materialism or we all fall down. Nevertheless, those bridges must integrate seamlessly on several qualitative levels with the existing socio-cultural realities of the environments in which they are placed. The contemporary university, however, is resolute in its segregation of the student of Engineering and the student of English, and in this resolve, mirrors the folkloristic understanding of the relationship of these two streams in the post-Industrial world.
In the context of the emergent Canadian university, English became an area of focused study only in the early twentieth century, once the experience of a common linguistic and literary heritage—modeled on the prototypical “English” gentleman-undergraduate—reached its obsolescence. The notion of a “canon” of authors, texts, and genres to be studied in a curricular program has never enjoyed de facto stability, whether at the institutional, departmental, or professorial level. What has emerged over time is a loose consensus that the formal study of English in a departmental program at a university is beneficial to critical thinking, creates competence in writing and speaking, and contributes to a certain social and emotional worldliness, promoted by exposure to the thoughts and ideas of others across time and space in text and in the English language. The economic utility of these factors is proposed by packaging them into a set of amorphous “transferable skills” that the student of English can apply to all the jobs for which they have no direct training and which are in a constant state of flux and change. Best-guess notions of job-market demands are identified and adapted to by departments through a steady application of optimistic hindsight and course-shuffling. Typically, the English undergraduate is directed towards grad school, teaching, journalism, advertising, creative writing, and editing.
But the advent of digital economies in the wake of Web 2.0 has imperiled these streams of potential income-generation. Employment opportunities across all sectors are now inextricably linked to participation in digital economies and, as the dominant producer-consumer model has thus far demonstrated, formal training and financial reward are no longer clearly tied, especially in markets that are heavy in content production. The question thus resurfaces for a new generation: why study English? The following partial answer takes a hard-nosed economic view.
Full-time, salaried employment in any of the fields traditionally connected with the study of English is now rare, and while freelance content-creation on the Web remains an avenue for those who are competent linguistically, the reality is that “gig work” via digital platforms is unreliable. For example, a 2018 International Labour Organization survey indicates that although 1 in 5 workers on crowdworking platforms report being responsible for Internet content creation and editing (including coding), 9 out of 10 workers in this type of digital labour report their work being rejected and/or payment being refused by the client with no explanation given.1 What has become clear is that unless human-language content can 1) be directly monetized through connection to online purchase and 2) be owned by the creator and not simply remain part of the general mass-production of hooked-in content—as for example on social media platforms—the risk is very real that the creator will not see any material reward for their efforts. Maintaining a revenue stream independent of direct share in the monies created through a saleable product and/or platformization is difficult.
Google Translate and Grammarly are part of the algorithmic meta-feedback mechanisms teaching AI how to talk, write, and read like humans
Digital automation and increased AI performativity are also driving down the need for human participation in all forms of employment, including Internet content creation. According to the World Bank Group’s (WBG) World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work, any jobs that are “codifiable,” that is, comprised of tasks that can be automated, are expected to come to an end, but on a variable (and somewhat unpredictable) timeline as new technological horizons are continually reached.2 The long-term prospect is that there is no safe quarter at either the low or the high end of skills and qualifications, from factory work to service jobs. The WBG provides a few illustrative examples: in 2017, Adidas began 3-D printing shoes at two “speed factories”; ride-share and taxi companies are experimenting with driverless cars; financial analysts are increasingly being replaced by platformized algorithms.3 Applications like Google Translate and Grammarly are part of the algorithmic meta-feedback mechanisms teaching AI how to talk, write, and read like humans intra- and inter-linguistically. Auto-generated “bot journalism” already populates Internet news streams. Increasingly, people have a difficult time discerning human poetry from “bot poetry”—the English student included.4 As a result of this pressure, everyone inherits the equal imperative to place themselves correctly on the production side of the value-creation-and-capture equation in order to ensure economic survival.
The traditional perspective that an English degree will have outcomes aligned with good economic results based on pure mastery of the language still carries some weight in the short term. Digital economies remain statistically favourable to English as a language: currently, it dominates the Internet as a content language medium with an estimated 57% of recorded sites operating in English.5 These statistics are incidental to the biases inherent in the global Internet, ICT, and telecommunications infrastructural ecosystem. Worldwide ICT hardware manufacturing is primarily located in China, while R&D and design, from devices to applications, are primarily US-based.6 Together, these two countries have captured 90% of the market capitalization value of the top 70 global digital platforms, with the US share coming in at 68%.7 Internet content providers, including American-owned Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, “now own or lease more than half of all undersea bandwidth.”8 The ability to harness and extract meaning from big data is where the big money lies, and the US—where 40% of the world’s colocation centres are located—is the home of big data.9 Internet content creation is wildly disparate, with 79% of the world total being shared almost equally between North America and Europe.10 This statistic also serves as an index of English-language dominance in the global knowledge economy, especially in the realm of academic publishing, where English operates as a virtual lingua franca. There is an overwhelming congruence between levels of urbanization, literacy, Internet and mobile penetration, and highly developed economies with a high concentration of English users. Social media users may be virtually equated with mobile users, and US-based Facebook dominates the market, owning four of the top five mobile applications (1. WhatsApp, 2. Facebook, 3. Facebook Messenger, and 5. Instagram); China’s Tencent owns WeChat, which occupies fourth place.11 The relative paucity of content in so-called “local languages” is an additional index of English-language dominance.12 These statistics support the general observation that digital economies, under the current paradigm, tend towards cultural and linguistic homogenization and a lack of global equity.
Analysts have interpreted these infrastructural biases and outcomes in ways that overlap through the identification of challenges and opportunities in digital ecosystems. While presumably bottom-up trends across social media platforms are transformed by market analysts like Simon Kemp into key brand stratagems for the creation and capture of value online through “shoppable paths” and “addressable advertising,”13 core aspects of these trends are conceptualized by the development branches of the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) as top-down generated effects reflective of pressing deficits in global digital economic policies. From Kemp’s perspective, online brand activity that leverages the energy of local activism, social minorities, insider communities, and “fake authenticity” is imperative to success in a crowded commercial landscape.14 Global economic agencies observe these same features as symptomatic of the problem of equitable distribution of financial reward and inclusion, with the essential crux being the question of how to encourage diversity and localism as a value-added desirable while guarding against loss of value through fragmentation and inevitable loss of scale.15 While it remains to be seen just how destabilizations of industry-led homogenization either through individual brand-marketing strategies or internationally-networked government policies will translate into meaningful economic outcomes for individuals—rather than ultimately devolving to mega-corporations—it appears that a retrieval of human-scale is underway. For now, with the continued emphasis on penetration into new and hidden markets, geographical proximity to enriched bases and a strong facility for intercultural communication in “global English” are important determiners of success. The ability to configure content in an authentic manner for local contexts is increasingly desirable, and the native speaker or formally trained student of English is not necessarily in a position of privilege in this scenario: native knowledge or mastery of other languages alongside any level of competency in English, coupled with intimate cultural knowledge outside the North American or European frame of reference, is more immediately in demand.
It is precisely now that any folkloristic reactions against the humanities must be avoided. Instead, the study of language and literature must be pursued with maximum confidence and full vigour, and placed at the heart of the contemporary university degree, whatever the student’s end goal. It ought not be dressed up in the guise of another “discipline,” and the target language need not be English. Language and literature programs are, naturally, aligned with the most durable components of the human experience: communications, culture, and identity. As such, the skills derived from this form of study are not “transferable” at all: they are the primary, target skills of the so-called 4IR economy.16 They need no reinvention, but they do need renewed support, especially in the public sphere.
Central to the foregoing narrative is the retrieval and expansion of human connection for economic gain in the digital landscape. To that end, English, like all iterations of language and literary studies, prioritizes the act of making sense of the interconnections between relational networks, socio-linguistic patterning, and storytelling through detailed synchronic and diachronic analysis. The advantages of this kind of training are self-evident for all types of employment because of their quintessentially social nature. Whatever roles or jobs students take on, whether social worker, lawyer, accountant, dentist, nurse, business entrepreneur, architect, geographer, or environmental scientist, their main task will be to listen for the story and translate it into the right language for advocacy, healing, resolution, sustainability, sustenance, preservation, and growth.
The intimate tie between language, culture, and identity is especially pronounced in digital economies
The intimate tie between language, culture, and identity is especially pronounced in digital economies. The fight for smartphone-screen real estate and user attention is giving rise to the production of short bursts of live-stream visuals, necessitating rapid-fire movement between genres, narrative perspectives, and voices. Increasingly sophisticated automation, AI, and personalized informational streams have given rise to the “deep fake” and “fake news,” revealing the need for nuanced approaches to the syntactic and semantic analysis of vocabulary, gesture, and style. Big data is not even close to realizing its potential, which can only be achieved through human cognition derived from the kind of pattern recognition and discovery of nuance that the investigation of metaphor and metonymy promotes. The shift towards high-level cognition and dexterity in relation to “sociobehavioural skills” as employment desirables retrieves the need for exposure to historical and cross-cultural worldviews, emotional states, and behaviours embedded in the textual record across a range of media from the earliest to the most contemporary literature.17 The generative possibilities created by the convergence of digital technologies and traditional forms of literature foreground the study of poetics and aesthetics. The identification of P2P or person-to-person marketing and the creation of niche communities as key factors in value creation and capture in digital economies highlights the centrality of specialized and customizable vocabularies and registers, gained through pursuits like etymology, philology, lexical semantics, and historical linguistics. Literary criticism, creative writing, translation, and interdisciplinary exchange trains for agility and flexibility in interpersonal communication and personal expression. The ironic physical limits to the electronic interface and distributional logistics are working to renew the importance of the commercial “storefront”, and social and emotional awareness—inculcated by the study of language and literature—is of immense value in this context.
Instead of making a plea for English along traditional lines, this discussion illustrates the direct relevance of the study of language and literature for digital economies as they continue to unfold. The time is now for a reconfiguration of public and corporate thinking in relation to its centrality. Universities must take the lead in guiding employers and students alike towards this stream in order to secure their best futures. Career and job-specific training are only as relevant as the individual’s ability to tie it effectively to a dominant skill-set consisting of communicative agility, flexibility, and mastery of human storytelling. The question of how to secure consistent economic compensation for one’s efforts will continue to be the greatest challenge moving forward, but it may be proposed that the solution will present itself outside the sphere of major corporations and government policy-making: the global digital-penetration bubble is set to burst, and when it does, human scale will be the driving force.
Reid, Jennifer. “Why Study English? Language, Literature, and Digital Economies.” Winnsox, vol. 1 (2020).