Re: Mutual Intelligibilty

Tue, 29 Nov 1994 10:07:52 +0000

>Steven Johnson's forward asks us anthropologists, "Are human beings
>mutually intelligible?" and goes on to opine that under all the cultural
>diversity, "people is people."

HMMM. This takes on some additional significance in light of certain
(r)evolutions within the computer field.

For a long time, we've had a bunch of machines "speaking" all kinds of
tongues like UNIX, MS-DOS, OS/2, CP/M, VMS, CMS, etc. The problem of mutual
non-intelligibility was resolved through standards, i.e. ASCII, TCP/IP, and
other 'least common denominators' (sort of like Esperanto for AIs.)
Recently, we've seen the emergence of "iconicity" (linguistic regression?)
in such things as Macintosh OpSystem n.x and Windows.... though these GUIs
were created less to resolve machine-machine intelligibility problems, and
more to resolve machine-human intelligibility problems.

At their base, of course, all computers "speak" binarese, machine language,
the bit and byte. But once we get up to the level of the assembler, or,
heaven forbid, the higher-level compiler language, things get complicated,
mainly because $00AFFF just doesn't address the same thing in a TRS-80 or
Tandy 1000...

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge in this perhaps finally
immigrating Fifth Generation are possible cross-platform tongues like
Pink/Taligent/PrEp which will allow lots of boxes (at least, for the
moment, IBM and Apple PowerPC-based boxes) to all speak the same
'language'... (and the emergence of many 'natural language' interfaces
which will now allow computers to talk with human beings through speech,
handwriting, and touch...) (and the creation of entities such as 'worms'
and 'viruses' which thrive in all kinds of different computer 'biomes'...)

The problem which created this Babel was the diversity of hardware...
interestingly, when we crack upon human skulls, rather than finding
hardware differences (e.g. Motorola vs. Intel) which might cause such an
"OS unintelligibility problem," we pretty much always find the same gray
goop. We might have to get back to the genes and their connection to brain
MURRAY, OR JENSEN) to see if there are hardware differences to see if there
might be a 'software' basis leading to "unintelligibility" problems...

Some philosophers, who have perhaps spent too many nights reading Marvin
Minsky (or was it Count Korzybski?), have concluded that there is a
software problem here with human intelligibility, and have time on their
hands, have concluded that there is a resolution to this dilemma, and it
lies in the creation of "LOBJAN," a purely logical language which, like
BASIC or Pascal, would be so formal and structured as to avoid the
vagueness and slipperiness of language which deconstructionists of all
stripes so heartily seize upon... and LOBJAN is, not surprisingly, heavily
mathematical in its content, since many of us have been phed the propaganda
over the last 20 years that mathematics is a universal language (at least
it has gotten close, thanks to the fact that most existing cultures have
agreed to use the zero as a holder of place value.)

Can humans from different languages/cultures be mutually intelligible? The
answer is yes. But it's not just a question of learning each other's
spoken/written languages, or inventing some new formal system like
Esperanto or Lobjan. It requires an understanding of all kinds of other
semiotic systems, because humans use an incredible number of communication
"channels" (they are not limited only to phone lines or Ethernet); and also
the application of skills like empathy, because I think that without that
we'll miss out on what *mana* means (emotionally, spiritually, etc.) to the
Pacific Islander rather than what it *represents* or *conceptualizes* or

New interfaces may be required. We have our hardware and basic schematics
(DNA) in common. (Different production conditions have resulted in all
kinds of software solutions, but the memes have always realized it was in
their interest to develop cross-platform strategies.) I have always doubted
that there are "black things that I can't understand." No human's
experience is ever so alien that another human lacks any means of
representing it to themselves or their own cultural peers... there are no
"black things," no "white things," perhaps in the grand scheme of things,
when we encounter other non-humanoid intelligent life out there among the
stars, perhaps no "human things" either.


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