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<nettime> Language and computers
Bishop Z on Mon, 25 Jul 2011 15:22:30 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Language and computers


“Languages are meant to be spoken, writing is nothing but a supplement of speech. … The analysis of thought is made through speech, and the analysis of speech through writing; speech represents through conventional signs, and writing represents speech in the same way; thus the art of writing is nothing but a mediated representation of thought, at least in the case of the vocalic languages, the only ones that we use.” Derrida, Pronunciation

I can only imagine what non-vocalic language JD was referring to in his time, but these days we have quite a few languages which are non- vocalic and do in some way represent thought.

It is this transition from the pre-history of written language to the system and structure of collective society that JD refers to as a movement from Discourse to the Essay. The ideals our society embody come as thoughts, affected by a system of speech, but come into legal existence through writing.

It is in fact the logic of writing, over the mere rationality of speech, which enables the scientific method, the social contract, the keeping of history. Just as the first French dictionary smoothed out disparate linguistic communities, it also created a common conceptual toolkit for adjudication. While De Landa shows how specifically the dictionary aided the development of France as a nation, his study is too brief (1000 years) to see it in the context of a transition from speech to written language.

More than the cultural homogeneity the Dictionary created, or the authoritative position written logic took, the importance for us is to see through the logical system of organization which we live in. To see logical organization as only one rationality. It is not that we need a return to vocalization, or vocal rationality, but rather we can take from speech a view of language which is not that of the written word, yet still existing in some configuration with our thoughts and ideals.

The homogeneity of written logic has become hegemony of truth in society. While witnesses in the courtroom and politicians on the pulpit may still use vocalization, written law always takes precedence. And why shouldn’t it? Writing things down helped humans remember stuff. For everything written language enabled us to create, it was still humans that were doing the writing. Written words became tools for us to express our thoughts, beyond books to institutions and discoveries. While these tools may not be prefect, they became our best judge of truth, scientific and legal.

Our societal reliance on written logic, and the system of truth it creates, has blinded us to the history of language outside of the written word. We did not go from vocal primitive humans to modern writing humans, and the story doesn’t simply stop there. Even Derrida fails to explore the positioning of images, and image rationality, in the story of Discourse to Essay. Image was not codified by the Dictionary in the same way that spoken language was. Formally the two systems of expressed thought have been kept separate because they lack a common set of signs. This is why music, despite being expressive, is not considered spoken.

The assumption logic has given us is that both language and rationality require discrete symbols. The irony of pictographic languages and “symbolism” not withstanding. Not only does an image- base expression of thought represent a rationality that is different than the same thought conveyed through speech, but as representations image contains a different set of tools. Images not only express things differently, they are capable of expressing different things.

If signs and signifiers of meaning replace the common set of discrete symbols that image-based expression fails to share with written and spoken languages. Then rather than a transition from vocal to written, we can see each medium of expression across a historical landscape of communicated thought. What written language brought to speech was exactly the discrete set of symbols which made it so beneficial to us, and set it apart from the other mediums of expressions. We certainly could not use music for adjudication.

Despite this frailty, the other mediums of expression, the sloppy ones, continued to be developed. Images spawned motion-images which despite their inexactness, increasingly play a role in politics. While written contracts continue to have a legal monopoly on truth, there are still those that choose not to read, and their direction, the direction of those humans, is more influenced by the rationality of motion-images, than that of essays and logic.

And that is not all that images spawned. In the 20th century, humans have created, hybridized, refined and sub-categorized countless new ways of expressing our thoughts. Yet none of these mediums have had the kind of power that written language gave us, both in terms of its specific advantages and in terms of its ability to control and organize our social reality.

However, up until the last 20 years, logic has been the anchor of written language. The hegemony of logic is not that written language is better than other mediums of expression, but that logic was the most accurate form of rationality. Written language just happened to be better at logic than speech. Thus humans obscured the written words dominance by saying that it was logic’s dominance.

Then the transistor entered the story of human existence, and with it came something that we had not seen since we started writing things down. For the first time there was a new medium of thought expression which did not share the frailty of every medium other than spoken and written language. Computer languages had a discrete set of symbols and could work out logical problems faster than books. The one thing computer languages have not been very good at is expressing the thoughts of humans. For all the accounting forms computer languages have helped us to create, there are still no novels written in C++.

Computers were designed to do logic, from the transistor up. Computer languages were designed to organize and manage logical operations. Each computer language had a different toolset of expression, much like each spoken language, but those toolsets have always been designed in reference to local operators, while the signs, signifiers, ideals and thoughts of humans were push to software and devices. This division made sense historically. The computer was made to be a logical tool, and at some level the language we use to communicate with it must be in terms of logical operators.

Much like motion-images, using a computer to express yourself is supported by abstracting away from the most difficult and tedious aspects of logic, and thus made thought expression more accessible to more humans.

But when we look at computer languages, on a landscape of expression, we see their common roots with Derrida’s vocalic languages in the signs and symbols of thought. Logic may have gotten humans a good distance from their primitive history, but ultimately logic’s claim on accurate accounting and truth depends upon what it enabled us to do when it was written down.

It’s not that logic itself ever had any power to change society, but that logic enabled humans to dream in new ways, in ways that held true. It was written language, on the other hand, that provided the means of logical expression. Written language enabled our true ideas to move around the planet, be remembered with specificity through generations, and be easily compared with expressions of other true thoughts.

Logic’s pervasivity is exactly why we created computers to be logical machines. But the relegation of the signs and symbols which make up our written language to what is called the “content layer,” separated computer based expression from the discrete symbol set that distinguished written and spoken language from other mediums of expression. On one side of the content divide in computer science are languages which share the power of the written word, while on the other side are kept all relations to human thought and experience.

It is not that we want irrational computers or illogical computer languages, but that we need to incorporate the repositioning of logic in relation to expression. If computer languages could contain the parts and participles of myths and dreams, as the written word does, then the rationality of that language would take precedence over logic. Logic was great at pulling humans out of the middle ages because it enabled us to build things faster and more accurately, but in the next century the pace of innovation comes from whatever system enables us to build faster and better. Ultimately, what we think is right exceeds what we can prove.

As computer languages become more able to express human ideals, logic not only becomes repositioned, but also destabilized. This is why academics tug at our notions of authenticity within our research. This is why we laugh about celebrating only success and not failure. While written language gave us the scientific method, the social contract, and the keeping of history, it was logic’s dominance that made those systems work.

As computers learn to speak the language of humans, they are doing more than simply replacing our methods of conducting science, business, government and history. They are making accessible the toolsets of accuracy, authenticity, and truth. More than being logical machines, computers are becoming human machines, in that their operations are becoming a medium of human expression.

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