Thursday, November 09, 2006

Messaging: Part I Communication and Language

I've been thinking about the nature of the internet and communications. I've got a lot of stuff to post. But I am going to break it down into a series of posts. This is my first in a multi-part series on messaging and humans.

Part I Communication and Language

When I was an undergrad at MIT, I had a "humanities" minor in computational linguistics. It was really interesting. Noam Chomsky led the thinking about linguistics at MIT. Noam's ideas about linguistics and politics seem to be uncorrelated. But they are one in the same. Another thought leader in communications, Jaron Lanier, was my boss at VPL Research, where he coined the term virtual reality. I had lots of interesting discussions over years with Jaron about symbolic communication.

Basically, symbolic communication has to do with the observation that all spoken and written language are composed of symbols. Symbols that represent the physical, visceral, conceptual and emotional human experiences. These experiences have components that tend to repeat and be shared across humans. We share these components by physically producing them as sounds and written words. In effect, these words and language as symbolic communication are a form of a lossy compression algorithm. That's right. This post. You talking to a friend. Language is just a lossy compression algorithm to represent these experiences.

Human culture has driven lots of microcultures. Each with their own language. Each with their own lossy compression algorithm. Over time, languages are subject to Darwinian competition, just like physical organisms. Just like companies in a capitalistic society. Capitalism has spread English as the business dominant language. It's basically the dominant protocol/format for the algorithm.

How did this start? First, as humans we used sounds which were probably composed of 1 or 2 sounds. Basic sounds to represent basic experiences. These sounds were probably utterances that we used to communicate with our tribe members. And they were short in order to get the point across and not be confused. Over time, syllables and phonemes were added to these utterances to build longer words and more narrow experiences. Perhaps narrow experiences shared by a subset of people.

And then with the advent of writing and print, written language took off.

Why are the most popular website domain names a few syllables? Probably because they are easy to remember. And communicate. Just like those early utterances.

So, in essence all of our written and spoken language is a sequence of symbols. Like the ones you are reading right this instance. And you can now see that language is basically a lossy compression algorithm for communicating experiences. Maybe that's why it is so easy to misunderstand what people say. And why its so powerful to have the internet now. Because our symbolic communication can be shared with 6 billion humans.

Thinking of langauge has also helped me see that distinct terminology can be used almost like codewords to identify who is in your tribe. And who isn't. Maybe that's why its so important to certain groups of people to make their members speak like they do. And enforce the correct usage of those symbols. Basically, language is being used as code for group formation of individuals. And to identify with a group. And to identify who is in the group. And who isn't. New groups need new codewords so that the members feel distinct and part of a new self-contained group. These new groups form from the burgeoning need of humans to continue to form identity and differentiate from each other. This leads to the constant creation of new words. New slang. New terms. Forever.

Everyone has had the experience of hearing a word that they are not used to. And wondering what it is. A lot of people call that slang. A lot of people call that terminology. And then when you hear an explanation of what that term or slang means, its a pretty simple concept that was just symbolically compressed into that word, which sounds like a codeword for a group that you don't know.

So, language as a lossy compression algorithm to share experiences. Language as a code to build "tribes."

In my next post, I'll write about how language has been used in different hubs over the millenia. And how we are at the biggest change in communication since we first started speaking to one another in our own local tribe.
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