Recently, we have been discussing the idea of computer code as language and the ramifications that may have for us as humans in the digital age. The movie “Arrival” also dealt with the limitations of language, for those who haven’t yet seen the movie, which I recommend highly, one of the points of the movie is that language forms the way we see the world (brilliantly addressed in Yana Schottenstein’s article “How the Language You Speak Affects Your Worldview”) and basically can determine our relation to the world that we describe and live in. I couldn’t help but take this idea and bring it to the idea of a computer language and wonder; Do people who write code begin to see the world differently because they are using a different language paradigm to describe what they see? Now to be clear, the word Expressive means that it’s easy to write code that’s easy to understand, both for the compiler and for a human reader. That doesn’t address the descriptive quality of the computer language, nor how languages influence and dictates our world view. Verbs must exist as do qualifications, if-then questions, choices, and consequences. Is it possible then that a communication between programmer and computer could describe the world that would be unrecognizable to a non-code literate person? I remember in Carl Sagans, “Cosmos”, Sagan stating that computers could communicate at such a speed as to discuss the entirety of current human knowledge in an instant, and when asked by a human what they were saying could only reply,”Nothing” as they could have no way to explain it to us. Perhaps we may find that not only can we not speak at their speed but we are looking at a completely different world. Not a world of colour and things but a world of 0’s and 1’s.
Last week, we discussed computer code as a language and how it affects us as humans, in short, do the requirements of writing in code remove the human aspect of expression? That possibly the need to fit into a communicable structure for computers may remove the ability for expressive communication in code and this may begin to remove the ability for us to communicate with other humans in a human manner. This has brought up more questions about code and language. Will we someday be saving lost computer languages? There is already a great site for words that are falling into extinction and even a museum of expired technology beyond typewriters or rotary phones to apple clamshell computers and floppy disks. The thought is that someday we might need to get some information that can only be read by this older technology. This may be a good thing but it brings to mind the blind spot in our planning and thought process. If we were to look farther back in the past we might pause at the ancient writer’s preoccupation on the animating force of man and the universe. What is it that makes us go, this mix of air, the wind, and water makes us alive. While we are still struggling with this question we do know what makes computers run yet how concerned are we about that future? What happens to all this technology past and future if we don’t have the electricity to make it run let alone the language to speak with a long silent computer. While we should be concerned about the past and preserving it what good will it be if we don’t have the ability to re-animate it? While Dr. Frankenstein had lightning to reanimate but we may not be so lucky. Will we be able to speak to the future if we can’t understand the language of the past?
I like Christopher Marlowe. If a person can be said to have a favorite Elizabethan playwright, then Marlowe would be mine. So my ears perked up on hearing that researchers doing a word to word comparison now believe that Christopher Marlowe wrote some of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and may have a hand in other works of the bard. The idea of determining exactly who did what in a creation of a piece of art is certainly not new, scholars regularly debate over who is responsible in the works of John Lennon and Mc Sir Paul McCartney, the cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso and many others.
When one sits down to read a work of fiction and often a work of non-fiction, one can tell a great deal about the author from the style in which they work. Most readers would never confuse Hemingway with Faulkner nor Dickens with Twain; and yet is this true of writers in computer code?
While it would not be debated that code is a form of communication, even if it is with a machine, which human communications do have but does the communication with a computer have some aspect of the writer inherent in it? There are many articles as to what personalities make a good coder, but what about the personality in the code? When one communicates with a machine do we lose our humanity and communicate in a mode devoid of human characteristics. When we speak to our pets we don’t speak like automatons and we have names and assign personalities to our cars or other mechanical items we have a relationship with. Does our communication with computers remove our humanness to the point that, were we to go back and look at a piece of code be completely unable to ascertain anything about the author or even if the author were human? Could it be that in speaking with computers, we find ourselves losing the thing that makes us, us?