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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The Symbolic Theft

Shove all of the patterns and symbols into my head, whatever this head is, so that they might mix and match and sort and simmer.   Take these chapters – with their paragraphs and their sentences and their words and their letters and their strokes – all in. Ideas. Voices. Stories. Characters. Facts. Fictions.   Paint, o my minds brush, the landscape these words demand in their conflicted synchronization.

That which we call science and pagan folk mythology and mathematical logic of an intellectual minority and old short stories and poorly edited blog posts and every other means of description form the alternative reality of our reality.  We are at war.   We are in a dance.   Reality will not succumb.   Reality will always demand this love/war.

Symbols

Shout TRUTH! do peddlers of all these ideas.  Truth is always a future away.  Belief in that truth is always two futures and another book away.

The Truth Shall Set You Free.   They once wrote. They once said.  They once transcribed.  They once prescribed.   They never defined that truth.   The ancient scribes of pagan turned Christian history.

They.  Generations of idea burglars.  You are one too!  You thief of stories and ideas and biases.

But.

You will also give generously, gravely, gallantly every letter you steal as you inadvertently blather on your story of stories.   In your email I’ll read a Twain idea.   In an update out will come Buddha.   In a #hashtag, Kurt Cobain.   In that silly “Things Remembered” flask you’ll engrave a Steve Jobs quote.   Sometimes credit will be given, when the creditor is known and adds credibility.  Most times the debt goes unpaid and probably the originator will be all the more happy to not be associated with the missed context.

I read to never be myself.   I read to be everyone else.   I read for you.  I read about you.  I read because I am not you.   I read because I have no ideas of my own.

Ideas only emerge.   They emerge from the interaction of symbols exchanged between people.  Exchange is story.    Story is exchange.

Meaning isn’t in a thing, it’s beside a thing.   Meaning is the exchange of story sold down the river as it shouts to the banks of the onlookers.  What Is This?! They cry.

Pictures are symbols.   Letters are symbols.   Pictures are letters, letter are pictures.   While there is always this war of ideas and the promise that words are dead and pictures won, the word birthed the picture, the picture birthed the word. The songbird and the larynx and the hand birthed them both.  The mind them all.

Or wait.

The body in relation birthed the mind birthed the rest of it.   I thought Darwin explained this all.

Or was it Wittgenstein.

Suit the word to the action, the action to the word.  The bard of bards once might have said, written, drawn, acted.   And so we do.

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The human race began a path towards illiteracy when moving pictures and sound began to dominate our mode of communication. Grammar checking word processors and the Internet catalyzed an acceleration of the process. Smartphones, 3-D printing, social media and algorithmic finance tipped us towards near total illiteracy.

The complexity of the machines have escaped our ability to understand them – to read them and interpret them – and now, more importantly, to author them. The machines author themselves. We inadvertently author them without our knowledge. And, in cruel turn, they author us.

This is not a clarion call to arms to stop the machines. The machines cannot be stopped for we will never want to stop them so intertwined with our survival (the race to stop climate change and or escape the planet will not be done without the machines). It is a call for the return to literacy. We must learn to read machines and maintain our authorship if we at all wish to avoid unwanted atrocities and a painful decline to possible evolutionary irrelevance. If we wish to mediate the relations between each other we must remain the others of those mediations.

It does not take artificial intelligence for our illiteracy to become irreversible. It is not the machines that will do us in and subjugate us and everything else. Intelligence is not the culprit. It is ourselves and the facets of ourselves that make it too easy to avoid learning what can be learned. We plunged into a dark ages before. We can do it again.

We are in this situation, perhaps, unavoidably. We created computers and symbolics that are good enough to do all sorts of amazing things. So amazing that we just went and found ways to unleash things without all the seeming slowness of evolutionary and behavioral consequences we’ve observed played out on geological time scales. We have unleashed an endless computational kingdom of such variety rivaling that of the entire history of Earth. Here we have spawned billions of devices with billions and billions of algorithms and trillions and trillions and trillions of data points about billions of people and trillions of animals and a near infinite hyperlinkage between them all. The benefits have outweighed the downsides in terms of pure survival consequences.

Or perhaps the downside hasn’t caught us yet.

I spend a lot of my days researching, analyzing and using programming languages. I do this informally, for work, for fun, for pure research, for science. It is my obsession. I studied mathematics as an undergraduate – it too is a language most of us are illiterate in and yet our lives our dominated by it. A decade ago I thought the answer was simply this:

Everyone should learn to program. That is, everyone should learn one of our existing programming languages.

It has more recently occurred to me this is not only realistic it is actually a terrible idea. Programming languages aren’t like English or Spanish or Chinese or any human language. They are much less universal. They force constraints we don’t understand and yet don’t allow for any wiggle room. We can only speak them by typing them incredibly specific commands on a keyboard connected to a computer architecture we thought up 50 years ago – which isn’t even close to the dominate form of computer interaction most people use (phones, tablets, tvs, game consoles with games, maps and txt messages and mostly consumptive apps). Yes, it’s a little more nuanced than that in that we have user interfaces that try to allow us all sorts of flexbility in interaction and they will handle the translation to specific commands for us.

Unfortunately it largely doesn’t work. Programming languages are not at all like how humans program. They aren’t at all how birds or dogs or dolphins communicate. They start as an incredibly small set of rules that must be obeyed or something definitely will breakdown (a bug! A crash!). Sure, we can write an infinite number of programs. Sure most languages and the computers we use to run the programs written with language are universal computers – but that doesn’t make them at all as flexible and useful as natural language (words, sounds, body language).

As it stands now we must rely on about 30 million people on the entire planet to effectively author and repair the billions and billions of machines (computer programs) out there (http://www.infoq.com/news/2014/01/IDC-software-developers)

Only 30 million people speak computer languages effectively enough to program them. That is a very far cry from a universal or even natural language. Most humans can understand any other human, regardless of the language, on a fairly sophisticated level – we can easily tell each others basic state of being (fear, happiness, anger, surprise, etc) and begin to scratch out sophisticate relationships between ideas. We cannot do this at all with any regularity or reliability with computers. Certainly we can communicate with some highly specific programs some highly specific ideas/words/behaviors – but we cannot converse even remotely close with a program/machine in any general way. We can only rely on some of the 30 million programmers to improve the situation slowly.

If we’re going to be literate in the age of computation our language interfaces with computers must beome much better. And I don’t believe that’s going to happen by billions of people learning Java or C or Python. No it’s going to happen by the evolution of computers and their languages becoming far more human author-able. And it’s not clear the computers survival depends on it. I’m growing in my belief that humanity’s survival depends on it though.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my own children should learn in regards to computers. And I have not at all shaped them into learning some specific language of todays computers. Instead, I’ve focused on them asking questions and not being afraid of the confusing probable nature of the world. It is my educated hunch that the computer languages of the future will account for improbabilities and actually rely on them, much as our own natural languages do. I would rather have my children be able to understand our current human languages in all their oddities and all their glorious ability to express ideas and questions and forever be open to new and different interpretations.

The irony is… teaching children to be literate into todays computer programs as opposed to human languages and expresses, I think, likely to leave them more illiterate in the future when the machines or our human authors have developed a much richer way to interact. And yet, the catch-22 is that someone has to develop these new languages. Who will do it if not myself and my children? Indeed.

This is why my own obsession is to continue to push forward a more natural and messier idea of human computer interaction. It will not look like our engineering efforts today with a focus on speed and efficiency and accuracy. Instead it will will focus on richness and interpretative variety and serendipity and survivability over many contexts.

Literacy is not a complete efficiency. It is a much deeper phenomena. One that we need to explore further and in that exploration not settle for the computational world as it is today.

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