The Value Of Imperfection
In the last few decades, the possibility of downloading our thoughts into a computer has been discussed. And just as with the internet, the first people who talked about mind uploading were small in number, and eccentric in character. But now, the idea of human-machine intelligence has entered into the mainstream.
Ray Kurzweil predicts that this day will come before the year 2030, and Elon Musk warns the world of what would happen if the human-machine merger does not take place. Musk once tweeted, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” The idea is that failure to ramp up our capacities to match Artificial Intelligence levels would spell disaster for the human race. AI would become far too powerful for us to keep up.
The End of Language
Neuralink was established in 2016. The company, started by Elon Musk, is aiming to establish the first neural implant called the Link, that will allow people to control a computer or mobile anywhere they go. The Link works by inserting “micron-scale threads” into areas of the brain that control movement. In turn, these threads connect to the implant.
Musk has mentioned that monkeys have already been able to use this technology to control a computer. And according to Zizek, researchers have been using this technology on rats for decades. But he follows with a disclaimer — this research is not being given much publicity.
On the Joe Rogan Podcast, Musk said that after the development of Neuralink, language would become obsolete. People wouldn’t need to talk, but could choose to do it for sentimental reasons. Without the obstruction of language, you could communicate your ideas far more quickly and precisely. And if you wanted to speak a different language, all you need to do is download a program.
But is he right? The question is not merely a technical one, but a philosophical one. First, is it possible to communicate without a word-based language? Second, is it possible to have private thoughts without a word-based language?
Communication Without Language
There is a story about a man, Charles Bliss, who wanted to change the way we communicated, because he believed that many of the world’s problems can be traced to the inherent flaws of word-based languages.
Bliss thought that words were by nature deceptive, that people could be fooled into believing dangerous ideas because words lacked precision — a politician could phrase a sentence in a particular way that would make it appeal to a broader group of people, or he could promote racism and mask it by using scientific arguments, veiled in vague, philosophical overtones.
This concern about semantics is an old one, and many such arguments can be found in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke.
To solve the inherent flaw in language, Bliss invented a new way of communicating: semantography. Instead of using words to communicate ideas, he would use images — he called it Blissymbolics. He sent letters to governments, hoping that they would adopt his new system, but all his efforts failed.
Then, one day, he learned that for years, a centre in Canada had been using his symbols to teach children with cerebral palsy to communicate. At first, he was happy, but then was horrified when he learned that his language was being used not as a replacement, but as a bridge to learn traditional languages. He sued the centre and incessantly badgered it, until finally, they came to a compromise with him.
Can you communicate without the imposition of a culturally shared language like English? Yes, Charles Bliss could do it, so can programmers, and so can anyone who knows Morse code. But what kind of thinking is possible without language?
Writing is clearly one form of thinking, and the difficulty of writing is not merely in communicating what you think, but doing so in a way that other people can understand. In other words, language is a social game, or more precisely, it is a relational game.
It is not necessarily social because I could theoretically create a language that only I could understand. The relation here would be between myself in the past and myself in the future.
The relation can also be between a human and a machine. So, language does not have to be social, but it must be relational.
One of the features of a word-based language is that it is vague. It is possible for different people to interpret the same words or text differently, as Bliss recognized (and as did Derida) Each word and each sentence evokes different impressions in the reader, who can choose to analyze the context in which the words are written on any level he chooses. Words can refer to whatever you want them to refer to.
That is why it is easy to misrepresent what someone wrote, but it is also why deception is possible. With language, you can conceal meaning. In other words, language is a tool of communication that can be manipulated according to the intentions of the person wielding it. But what happens to our ability to choose our message when we get rid of the tool?
The Medium is the Message
The Medium is the Message was written in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan, and the ideas in it seem to become more relevant in time. McLuhan’s thesis was that the medium through which we communicate, whether TV or Radio or Newspaper, creates an entire industry around it that we are not aware of: a new way of living, and a new way of thinking.
It is not that the TV is merely transmitting ideas- the existence of TV creates a ripple effect through society. People’s reading habits change, the way they think changes, what they choose to discuss (events happening far away), and even what types of emotions they choose to feel (anger, outrage). The TV format, with its constraints due to advertising considerations, influences how people pay attention and for how long.
The counter intuitive idea here is that the message itself is basically meaningless — what really matters is the technological medium, how we interface with it, and how it affects society. Today, in the internet age, we see new trends emerge that influence everything from politics, to the way we interact with each other, to the relationships we have with ourselves. The concern is that these technologies may cause societies to become less literate and less critically minded.
Individual authors who took credit for their intellectual accomplishments through copyright is a recent invention — it did not exist prior to the printing press. Medieval schools did not care about the precise identity of the “books” they studied; they were a humble service company tasked with the tedious undertaking of procuring texts for long hours.
Xerography — every man’s brain-picker — heralds the ties of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one — instant steal!
As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork eclipsed private effort.
To answer the first question, “is it possible to communicate to people without a word-based language? Yes, but the way in which we communicate and the language in which we communicate does change the content of our thoughts. In other words, it is not that we have fixed thoughts, and we can choose from a number of ways to communicate our thoughts.
The thoughts themselves are shaped by how we communicate. Speech creates different thoughts from writing. Tweeting creates different thoughts from writing a book. Blissymbolics, morse code, programming languages, music, and painting communicate different thoughts from word-based languages.
Constraints are not inconsequential.
In the future, Neuralink could eliminate our need to use the written word. But our thoughts would be different. So it is not that language cannot be independent of words, but thoughts cannot be independent of language.
So what? What’s so special about words anyway?
Here, the second question is relevant. “Is it possible to have private thoughts without a word-based language?”
Going back to Neuralink — even if it is possible to communicate coherent and complex ideas without a word-based language, there is still a problem. The lack of a buffer between what an individual wants to say, and what message comes out is gone. It becomes impossible to be politically correct, to conceal one’s intentions, to protect the other person’s feelings.
Even if the only way information could be shared is when a person wills it, there are times where an individual wills something and then wants to take it back. Think about the last time you wrote a text and deleted it before sending. If your brain was constantly connected, then this buffer would cease to exist.
The Obstacle is a Problem Problem
The problem with word-based language according to Elon Musk is input and output speed. Typing is too slow, language is too cumbersome. If only we can do away with language, we would be able to communicate with lightning speed. But, in reality, the obstacle (cumbersome language) is not a problem that must be eliminated. Not all redundancies are undesirable.
Slavoj Zizek gives a couple of light-hearted example s to make this point.
The first example is about French cuisine that was told to him by a French friend of his. Rotten cheese, which is now considered a delicacy, had its roots in a failure. It was because farmers were too lazy, that the cheese rot, and it was because of this mistake that a new product was created and sold to the market. The same can be said about champagne, which is the same laziness that was applied towards wine. A perceived error or mistake can lead to a solution. One would usually perceive “laziness” as a problem to be overcome, but it was laziness that created solutions.
Another example. Zizek’s friend (a female) said that her last lover who saw her naked told her that she would have a perfect body if she only lost 2 or 3 pounds. So what did he do?
He instantly advised her to not lose the 2 or 3 pounds. If she loses the weight, she realizes it is just an ordinary body and loses her ideal. In other words, it is the mirage of a perfect body that keeps her motivated to look after herself, and the mirage can only be maintained with a false narrative (2 or 3 more pounds). If the narrative is disproved, and she realizes that her perfect body is not all it’s cracked up to be, then she loses the mirage.
So, Elon Musk perceives language as an obstacle, because it is slow and cumbersome. If only we did away with it, the same way we should do away with laziness and with the 2 or 3 extra pounds, the problem would be solved. But the dialectic process that Hegel wrote about points out the error in this way of thinking.
The redundancies, the illusions, the failures, the mistakes, the misunderstandings are not delaying progress, they are an essential part of progress. Gravity makes lifting weights difficult, but muscles can only be engaged by the resistance caused by gravity. You don’t solve the problem of lifting weights by getting rid of gravity (well, you do, but not in a helpful way).
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.