The Futurist Corporation

Linguistic Inflation
20 December 2010, 5:31 am
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The value of language is becoming inflated.
In economics, inflation refers to the declining buying power of money. Inflation occurs as more money is printed. When the supply of money increases, its worth decreases. Prices rise, and purchasing goods becomes increasingly difficult. It requires more labor to earn enough money to buy the same product. This causes wages to increase in response, causing an inflationary cycle. The result is the change in price that’s seen comparing a bottle of Coca Cola which was 5 cents in 1946 to a bottle today which costs ~$1.50.

When we refer to value in the field of communication we call it meaning. Inflation occurs in language in the sense it requires more and more language, and therefore more and more education to interact with the same sets of data. If we measure the proliferation of meaning the way Shannon does in his foundational text “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” we can say that the amount of language needed to enact a change in conduct has increased over the past two centuries. Communication is measured in the extent that our words can be taken seriously, rather than being dismissed as “unscholarly” or “unprofessional.”

Monetary inflation can be measured in the change in the amount of money needed to purchase a particular product over a period of time. Linguistic inflation can be measured in the amount of language needed to effectively communicate, i.e. to effect some sort of change in conduct. Measuring an amount of language measures the linguistic capital gained through educational institutions. Higher education equips one of the language needed to communicate in various discourses or in various occupational roles.

Sociologist William Ogburn predicted in 1931 that as time progressed, “the heterogeneity of material culture will mean specialists and languages that only specialists can understand.” The function of our educational system is the proliferation of such specialized language.

Specialization in the division of labor requires more and more education. But in the same way that the dollar becomes worth less and less as the money supply increases, the value of an education is worth less and less, as our language expands. Some relate the declining value of an education to the increased number of people who hold degrees, which would correspond to an increase in the supply of labor. The expansion and increased proliferation of language would symbolically correspond to an increase in the money supply. Thus the decreasing value of a college degree is not just due to changing job requirements, increased selectivity of the labor market, and increasing pool of applicants (continuing to increase as the general population increases), but also related to the expansion of knowledge itself, which requires more and more words to describe its increasing complexity.

The price of the U.S. dollar fluctuates with demand, as determined by foreign countries. Between 2008 and 2010, the price of the Chinese yuan was determined exclusively by the price of the U.S. dollar. Decried as “currency manipulation,” this caused Chinese goods to seem cheaper because the Chinese Yuan was not allowed to inflate.

In the same way, the value of knowledge in terms of the academic degree is not allowed to inflate beyond the doctorate. The doctorate is a terminal degree; any education beyond the level of the doctorate is worthless–it is similar to a cap being placed on the proliferation of education to prevent knowledge inflation from requiring more of a person’s life to be spent in graduate school.

Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner accused the Chinese exchange rate of being “artificial” and preventing “accurate valuation.” The cap on inflation benefited Chinese manufacturers because if their currency would have been inflating, but was prevented from doing so, that made their goods easier to purchase.

In the same way, the enforced cap on education at the same time that research continues being done, and knowledge continues to expand, makes data seem easier to interact with than it would be if there were no limit on the number of degrees that could be acquired. Those that have attained a terminal degree can interact with data sets even if they might be less than qualified (as in the case of interdisciplinary endeavors). This prevents academics from having to spend their entire lifetimes acquiring the linguistic capital necessary to effectively communicate in the highly specialized linguistic markets that the accelerating proliferation of information might demand.

When a country’s currency inflates, goods become more and more difficult to purchase. Consumers balance this by receiving (or demanding) higher wages. If wages do not increase at the same rate that the price of goods increase (which is often the case), it will require more and more labor-time to purchase the same amount of goods.

In terms of education, consumers of information cannot demand longer lifespans to devote to attending grad school, i.e. acquiring linguistic capital. Industrialization has, in fact, led to longer human lifespans, but this does not account for the increased amount of time needed to acquire degrees. Increased lifespan can keep you old for longer, but it can’t make a year seem any shorter.

What we have seen is that it takes more and more time spent in school to acquire the linguistic capital to effectively communicate. In order for a person’s research or job qualifications to be taken seriously, he or she must possess greater and greater amounts of linguistic capital in the form of academic degrees. During the early twentieth century, all one needed to be assured of job stability was a high school diploma. A generation later young people everywhere were being encouraged to finish college in order to be sure of a steady job. Now young people and older job-seekers are being pressured to get a graduate degree just to remain competitive.

As knowledge continues to proliferate, but a limit being placed on the amount of linguistic capital one can acquire (a PhD), we will see more and more people deciding to get a PhD rather than entering the workforce. The accelerating rate at which information enters the realm of public accessibility combined with the increasing percentage of the population who will have doctorate degrees, will continue to drive down their value. As this linguistic inflation continues it is only a matter of time before our society must find a new way of institutionalizing knowledge. The use value of staying in graduate school for so long can only depreciate for so long. If knowledge continues to proliferate along the anachronistic criteria our educational system has concretized, the distribution of knowledge in our society will become increasingly polarized. Those willing to spend one half to one third of their lives just acquiring the accreditation required to perform their desired role in society will become the only people allowed to interact with information along socially recognized platforms. On the other end will be those without the time or financial resources to complete the years of education needed to get a terminal degree, and thus dropping out altogether, since anything less than a PhD would worthless.

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