Profanity is so emotionally powerful we store it in another part of the brain, away from everyday language: that’s why people otherwise rendered speechless by stroke or brain damage can, when the frustration of their situation boils over, still yell, “God f–king dammit.” Profanity even has its own syntax. The construction “I don’t give a [enter obscenity or euphemism of choice]” cannot be used with a regular English word; likewise, “What the . . . ” can be completed by certain profanities or euphemisms or left blank, but not filled out with an ordinary word.
In short, if English should lose its surprisingly small profane vocabulary set through overusage, we would be forced to invent new obscenities. That would be no easy task, given the polished perfection of what biology, time and chance has already bequeathed us.
The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked.
There is a theological parable devised by the impeccably named English philosopher John Wisdom but often adapted and updated by others. The version I first heard, years ago, went something like this: Two travellers return to a once neglected garden and find it miraculously restored to life. One of the travellers suggests that this is proof that a gardener has been tending the patch. The other disagrees, and they decide to set up watch. No one appears, which prompts the believer to suggest that an invisible gardener must be doing the work. Various monitors—bloodhounds, motion detectors, night-vision cameras—are put in place, but none register the appearance of the ghostly gardener. Finally, the skeptic asks the believer what meaningful difference there can be between a gardener who cannot be detected and a gardener who does not exist.
What separates the cloud from earlier computer networks, in Hu’s eyes, is not technology. Rather, the cloud is defined above all by its capacity to hide the material cost of its infrastructure behind a facade of individual user freedom and flexibility. In Hu’s analysis, the cloud traverses the gap between material and immaterial by performing a sort of rhetorical virtualization, “turning real things into logical objects.” Cloud-scale symbolic substitution is powerful, capable of transforming a roiling assemblage of switches, servers, software, standards, and streams of data into a “cloud drive” that appears as singular and easy to comprehend as the USB stick dangling off of your keychain.
Tall windows flood the vast dining room with natural light, illuminating a minimalist mix of rectangular and round tables—each ringed by tasteful, Modernist chairs—beneath a grid of industrial light fixtures and exposed wooden beams. Is this the city’s hottest new restaurant that everyone’s been talking about, the one with the locally sourced ingredients served on artfully presented plates? No, it’s the new T.G.I. Friday’s.