Communication At Its Core

Communication is something I have never really thought of in depth until reading the first couple chapters of James Gleick’s “The Information”, however, the idea that communication is not so different at its core despite the many different ways that people communicate caught my attention immediately. Whether it be in written form, sounds, expressions, or spoken language the way we as people have communicated throughout history has changed drastically while taking on different forms. Knowing more about such differences made me wonder just how similar computing and written language are, especially when thinking in terms of communicating with one another.

Now I know close to nothing about computing, and as soon as any kind of numbers come into play I quite literally do not know what is happening. When I think of communication, coding and computers are not what come into mind at all, unless I am typing out and email or writing an essay. However, even those little symbols in a CSS file have their own meaning, and communicate in their own way just as spoken language or written word does. Although even words themselves do not communicate in the simplistic, more easy to understand way, I thought they did. 

Words and language in general play such a vital role in our communication today, especially to me being an English major who loves to write using them. But what we write, alongside the languages we’ve developed for that writing, has been in a way undermined by Plato. Plato is a philosopher I have read certain works of before, though when I think of writing I do not necessarily think of how human beings use it primarily as a reminder, especially when it comes to communicating their thoughts and being. Plato has stated this about writing, that “You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom”. When I first started to think about such a statement, I thought that it would not be entirely true. My only basis for this was my initial belief that myself, along with many others I find it safe to assume have read something externally or personally profound, such as a piece of writing that communicated something that had lasting impact. That I have inherited a lot of wisdom from people I have never met, but I realized this was not entirely true. Writing as a form of communication is agreeably flawed in Plato’s analysis due to its inherent structure. Yes, writing is capable of teaching and communicating many things, but at the cost of us naturally remembering what we learn and taking it in differently. But does that really matter when thinking in terms of how communication is actually not so different at its center regardless of what form it’s in. 

The idea of communication in of itself did not change, whether it was through reading a written novel or how a CSS file does it, it gives information. It gives us all something talk about and even further communication.

Computing as the Language of the 21st Century

In chapter 2 of The Information, Gleick traces the history of the spoken word and its evolution throughout time. As the internet is to most recent generations, writing was to those who lived during its birth: disliked and suspicious. Plato argued that the invention of writing would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.” Ironically enough, the only reason we have access to this information is because somebody used writing to record it. It’s hard to imagine a society disliking the invention of writing, something that nation around the world are built on. Without records of the past, how would we know the types of government that worked and didn’t work? How would we know when advancements in medication were discovered? How would we know anything at all? I am typing this post using a technology, writing, that was created hundreds of years ago and which paved the way for other technologies, such as the laptop I am typing on, to be created and even imagined.  The passage goes on to detail how the “written symbol extends infinitely, in regard to time and space, and it gives the writer’s mind a life limited by the duration of ink, paper, and readers, as against that of his flesh and blood body.” On the forefront, I can’t see anything wrong with the written language, but that is only because it is ingrained in me as a human. By linking the technology of writing and the technology of artificial intelligence together, the fear and feeling of disconnecting Plato was feeling during the time has become more apparent. We have separated the human mind from the body; according to Plato, words are not as valued when written down because the mind is less active in “transcribing” the spoken words to memory. If Plato knew now that for years scholars, students, and other types of people were reading his works, analyzing them, reworking them, or arguing them, would he change his mind to write them in the first place? Is it our place, as humans of the 21st century, to grant ourselves access to the works of people before us? Of course, most writers write because they want their voices to be heard but what if we are receiving the wrong message which changes the whole meaning of the text? This is getting a little abstract. . . let’s talk about artificial intelligence. We discussed in class if it would be ethical to download George Washington’s mind into an artificial intelligence, thus bringing his mind “back to life.” The answer is no, but we still do it, in a way. People have re-imagined the words of influential people who have since passed on, deciding how they would react to situations of the 21st century. For example, the answer to the question “How would Martin Luther King Junior react to the Black Lives Matter movement,” cannot truly be answered by anyone but MLK. Is it okay to assume the words he would say if he were still here? Maybe this what Plato meant when he referenced the disconnect writing would bring to the human race: Putting aside our memory and the memory of the spoken words of those before us to only focus on the now, but in doing this making the words less valuable. Or was this was Gleick meant when he said “the dead speak to the living and the living speak to the unknown” – that we are recognizing and respecting the spoken and written words of those who have influenced our society to the degree that their words are just as powerful now as they were on the day they were said/written. These words spoken or written, were transcribed in some way that they will forever be available for anyone to see.

Rens Bod, author of A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present, defines the humanities as “the disciplines that investigate the expressions (areas of language, music, art, literature, theater and poetry) of the human mind.” I have been using the studies of the humanities to not only make sense of Gleicks text, but to understand the workings of computing we have been learning in class. Like the passage says, words leave traces like breadcrumbs, each have a long and distinct history, and carry memory. Computing is the same; it’s a written language that allows the user to trace files throughout one’s computer without the fancy layering. The symbols used in computing all hold specific commands, and when combined the commands turn into different commands; similar to writing a sentence. Unlike written language however, computing is not commonly known, and I would not consider the majority of the world to be literate in computing. Was it the humanities that gave rise and popularity to the use and study of written language? It seems as though it was indeed the humanities who deemed it ethical to keep the written word alive. These subject fields are founded in history that comes from the information of written text which allows new information to be created which will then be written down, adding to the infinite cycle of communication. Today, computing needs to be added into this cycle; it is the up and coming language of the 21st century and something all humanists will have to familiarize themselves with. How can you understand how the human mind works if you cannot understand the language behind the took that consumes most of their life? The “written” word today is typed on a keyboard onto an illuminated screen and sent to a cloud to be stored. Do we have the right to know the computing and code that happens “behind the scenes” of our computes? As I type, am I uploading my consciousness to the ‘cloud’ forever? These are the questions humanists must tackle but must keep in mind how the written word evolved over time. 

A Language of Expression and Action: Speech Acts and Coding

I ran into the concept of speech-acts last semester, and while finding the thought interesting, I did not find it relevant at the time. But I find the concept revived once more as our class begins writing in Markdown, HTML, and CSS. Here, we have languages that are, as far as I know it, composed entirely of speech-acts or a certain kind of speech-act. Each corresponding word and phrase either builds or enacts an operation onto the computer. Since each word and phrase creates action, coding becomes the language of command, of speech-acts, and of properly learning the scripts of command. In connection to the humanities then, our day-to-day language becomes in contrast a language of expression. The question, to me, becomes then how do each of these languages interact with each other? And, how do we properly theorize on a language of action?

The first chapter of James Gleick’s The Information provides the best resource for exploring this thought, as the chapter describes code (Morse code, specifically, but the thought is broad) as a means of ‘bootstrapping’ meaning onto symbols. Textually, Gleick reflects that “Morse had bootstrapped his system from a middle symbolic layer, the written alphabet, intermediate between speech and final code” (29). I think this quote is useful because the sentiment on Morse code is analogous to the relationship between code as action and language as expression. Code (in the programming sense) is mediated through language, but unlike Morse code, which aimed for streamlined expression, code aims for streamlined action. The issue, which I believe is most naturally raised here, is that streamlined expression is more perplexing than streamlined action because expression converts into action through peer to peer relationships, whereas streamlined action is only completely operative in a human-computer relationship. Thus, the province of the humanities would have nothing to say about this utilitarian language based around a relationship between a user and a tool. Yet, I disagree with this notion, because we have, like Morse, used the alphabet to create a language entirely composed of speech-acts that will be followed when the right rules are followed. This is the key sentiment; our most effective tool is filtered through everyday language. And there are two important meeting points of the humanities and coding because of that. The first is the intersection between programming and rhetoric, and the second is a language of streamlined command serving as the foundation to our most used space of expression.

It is this commonality of symbols that paves the way for coding to form a relationship with the humanities, and more specifically, rhetoric. I find rhetoric to as the most ample ground in the humanities because it is the discipline that has teleological aims. Rhetoric itself is not precisely a speech act, as the flow of rhetoric often spans over many statements and ideas, but it can be viewed as the goal being to inspire a belief or action within the listener. In relationship to coding, there is a natural link in the way language is used as influence (rhetoric’s domain) and command (programming’s domain). Naturally, rhetoricians interface with a person or a section of a polis whereas programmers interact with computers, but the complexities of this distinction are outside the scope of my post. I want to focus on the feeling that is accessible when having access to a language that allows for the consistent and perfect use of speech-acts and commands.

I want to relate this back to Gleick’s recounting of the Morse code and the African drummers, for there is a point in which his statement on expression mirrors that of action. Of the drummers, Gleick states that “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate” (32). Morse code needed to have as few words communicated as possible to save money, but I think this implicit utilitarian factor culls the ability of expression. In contrast, the ‘translations’ of the drum beats felt far more poetic and evocative. However, the streamlined language of action (programming) loses none of its power, and in some sense, gains more with its straightforwardness. Clearly, there is a difference in the words necessary when attempting to be properly expressive and properly active. And yet, this streamlined language of action builds the framework of our most used platform of expression. I cannot remember another time when our most common mode of expression was built on a language of purely action. I cannot help but feel as if that framework resonates upwards and effects the way in which we discourse as well.

I would like to conclude with a short word on the concept of scripts that I mentioned. There is always the thought that human interaction has a ‘script’ so to speak, or rather, that there are a combination of words that I could say to someone that would allow me to ‘access’ or ‘influence’ them effectively. This is a flawed conception, and I believe that it blocks attempts at cooperative dialogue. But now, our world is run on a set of programs operating through this kind of script. I think this is the enigmatic piece when attempting to theorize on the relationship between the humanities and computing. The humanities does not have a language of action whereas computing does. This point raises a wariness in me then, as this gift of a language of pure action to creatures of pure expression, it seems perverse. I think it is possible to write off this entire thought as a over-extrapolation of a user/tool dynamic, but computing (in modern times, I remember 1s and 0s) is the first tool to use language so powerfully. I suppose I would like to end with a quote I found from Walden that fits into what I am attempting to convey. Thoreau says of our living this, “It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots” (44).

Electricity and Ethnicity in The Information

In James Gleick’s, “The Information,” various aspects of technology are discussed in relation to the humanities as this has changed from the past into what can be observed in modern day. Chapter 5 of the book depicts the Earth having a nervous system as is indicated by the chapter’s title, “A Nervous System for the Earth.” One focus of this chapter is the concept of electricity and how each new technological discovery develops: “The analogy linked one perplexing phenomenon with another. Electricity was an enigma wrapped in mystery verging on magic, and no one understood nerves, either. Nerves were at least known to conduct a form of electricity and thus, perhaps, to serve as conduits for the brain’s control of the body” (Gleick 126). Gleick’s comparison of one of the most important function of the body to the capabilities of electricity is a concept to consider as both relate to the daily lives of humans everywhere. Our bodies have such advanced ways of carrying out their many functions, just as technology contributes to the ways humanity interacts and changes over time.

Although the concept of humanities can relate to a broad range of different ideas, there are some that directly relate to computation and the increase in development of humanistic principles and morals. One question that may arise in the process of reading a book like “The Information” is whether or not the tools we create as developing humans change who we are. It is potential that new discoveries and developments have altered the values and morals that humans have collectively. Each culture that humans belong to has different aspects, but most of the world has quickly adapted to new technologies as they have come into play. New technologies also have the potential to dictate the interests held by different generations and groups of people. For example, in today’s world humans are consumed by cell phones and social media platforms. Though this greatly enhances the way humans communicate, it simultaneously takes away from face-to-face interaction and how genuine a conversation has the potential to be.

The effects of electricity and communication being related are also portrayed through the sense of nature: “But lightning did not say anythingーit dazzled, crackled, and burned, but to convey a message would require some ingenuity. In human hands, electricity could hardly accomplish anything, at first. It could not make a light brighter than a spark. It was silent. But it could be sent along wires to great distancesーthis was discovered earlyーand it seemed to turn wires into faint magnets. Those wires could be long: no one had found any limit to the range of electric current. It took no time at all to see what this meant for the ancient dream of long-distance communication” (128). Gleick makes the point that a natural phenomena such as lightning could not make a significant technological impact on its own, but through the involvement and work of humans, electricity would eventually lead to the creation of an essential advancement for the ability of mankind to grow. People are able to share their thoughts and ideas as far as they could possibly travel.

An important and undermined idea to consider when it comes to the effects of technology and its contribution to communication is how this can change the way literature from different cultures is preserved and continues to be shared. African scholar Isidore Okpewho advocates for this idea in his writing of “African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity.” In this book he discusses the importance of dismantling preconceived notions about the intelligence of “primitive” cultures in terms of oral storytelling. He expresses how oral literature provides a new perspective of the culture to individuals who are not aware through an engaging manner as opposed to other works of literature. Okpewho portrays how improper methods of collecting pieces of African oral literature has caused stylist merits to be lost. Overall, he encourages readers to keep an open mind when it comes to oral literature and the importance of being okay with things that are uncomfortable and new, outside of what we are used to reading. That is the only way to truly understand and appreciate the complex nature of African oral storytelling. If done correctly, it has the ability to add a voice to characters that standard Eurocentric literature cannot successfully portray. As a result, the history of past cultures can be preserved and shared with current and future generations as there are many important values to be considered that are still relevant to our world today. Humankind can improve their overall functioning and quality of life through the many benefits that are associated between technology and communication as this helps us communicate both old and new ideas among various ethnicities, continuously growing within our diverse societies.

The word stripped to essential bits

Our thoughts shape the way we perceive the world around us. Communication as a verbal transaction of information was a necessary instrument for survival long before anyone dreamed of communicating long-distance. But the birth of written language changed the way humans thought: suddenly there was a logical order of things, rules to prescribe; for instance, things had proper names and spellings. Abstract concepts were available to literate minds, laying figurative fertilizer down on the ground from which knowledge grows. The written word is the starting point for information technologies, but it is certainly not the conclusion, if there is to be one.

Written language introduced an unprecedented permanence in information by rendering the spoken word tangible. This ability for a message to transcend its historical situation is the fascination of the humanities, where we read the words of humans from all ages, thereby existing briefly outside time ourselves. The written word allowed us to process information in a new and different way. For the first time, we could think about the language and organization of our thoughts through the reflective lens of written word: using symbols to signify meaning, preserving information that might otherwise escape us if it existed in thought alone. It’s no wonder that after a certain point, even the written word had to evolve to keep up with human needs.

Early on in The Information, James Gleick writes: “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought. In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (12). As humans engaged in the collaborative, continual progress of better information encoding, sharing, and storing capabilities, we are tasked with re-inventing language to better suit our changing informational needs. As an English major, it’s hard for me to part with the alphabet or even to imagine a world in which the alphabet becomes obsolete. Even though I only speak one language, letters (signifiers) that form words (symbols) are familiar and recognizable across most Romantic languages. But words often fail us in the transmission of information: there are paradoxes and redundancies, issues of brevity and clarity. As much as I love the occasionally frustrating intricacies of language, I now realize the historical and humanitarian necessity for ways to encode information so that it is universally accessible.

Information can be stripped down even further than words and letters to symbols and signs, the domain of math. Part of me desperately wanted to keep my romantic notion of English language and the (seemingly) institutionalized jargon of math language separate, but my wiser self recognizes that that mental separation is contrived. I’m making an effort to wane my inherent bias against mathematical language. As ironic as it seems, the simplicity of numbers makes them the more effective means of spreading information. Numbers, like letters, are signs in a system of patterns. Patterns don’t necessitate specific symbols, either. In its purest form, information is no greater than symbols signifying meaning.

Our common currency for information is letters and numbers, but it can be broken down even further. In binary code, utilized in the Morse telegraph, it is represented as a current (0) or an interruption (1). If binary code is considered an informational language, expressing complex theory and nuance seems drastically over-simplified. But as an instrument for spreading information, it has almost unquantifiable power: “Signs and symbols were not just placeholders; they were operators, like the gears and levers in a machine. Language, after all, is an instrument” (165) . Unlike any language before, binary code made information unlimited. Any message could be efficiently encoded and transmitted throughout networks. As Gleick reiterates, the encoding between languages made it possible: “The Morse scheme took the alphabet as a starting point and leveraged it, by substitution, replacing signs with new signs. It was a meta-alphabet, an alphabet once removed. This process—the transferring of meaning from one symbolic level to another—already had a place in mathematics” (152). ‘An alphabet once removed’ sounds particularly apt, because that’s at the heart of what we’re doing: encoding is moving between different levels of symbolic meaning.

As information becomes increasingly self-aware, the potential for levels of meaning expands infinitely. Computing and the humanities overlap because the ‘transferring of meaning’, or encoding, between one symbolic level (i.e. the alphabet) and another (i.e. code) occurs in conjunction with human progress, and helps us meet a growing need to more successfully communicate, store, and preserve information for future humanity.

Morse Code: A Gateway Between Computing and the Humanities

Upon reading James Gleick’s, The Information, I found it difficult to draw connections between the computing world and the humanities. For me personally, I was unable to fathom how these two completely different areas could possibly share any connections, or cross paths with one another. However, Gleick’s narration on the various technological innovations over the course of history, dedicated to helping spread information more efficiently, quickly, and widespread has helped increase both my awareness and knowledge of how interconnected these two fields of study are.

Gleick provides various detailed descriptions on multiple ‘information’ inventions. However, the one invention, or technological advance in terms of the spread of information, or communication that I was able identify a connection between the computing world and the humanities was Samuel F. B. Morse’s ‘Morse Code.’ Nearing the second half of the 19th century, Morse was working on designing his own version of percussive code, involving the utilization of electromagnets to “pulse” along a telegraph wire. The complexity of this process was more than Morse initially planned. His objective was to transmit language with the help of a clicking electromagnet. He didn’t want to look at this process with a mentality envisioning code, but rather as “a system of signs for letters, to be indicated and marked by a quick succession of strokes” (Gleick 19).


This quote specifically stood out to me in regards to an interconnection between computing and the humanities, because it reminded me of the significance of the alphabet and the writing system in the humanities. Gleick touched upon this fundamental aspect later on, noting that the evolution of the writing system took the longest out of all communicative inventions to develop. Ultimately, the alphabet itself represented “one symbol for one minimal sound” (Gleick 32). The same complexity of this notion is reflected in Morse’s invention, which he struggled in producing with his design.

Morse’s initial idea was to first send a series of numbers, one digit at a time, with dots and pauses in between. Therefore, each English word would be represented by a specific number. The telegraphists at the end of each line would meet these codes messages with a dictionary in hand to dissect each code. Obviously, this proved to be a time-consuming and inefficient process as the whole objective was to make communication more efficient, accessible, and quicker. With this road block in mind, Morse and his apprentice, Alfred Vail, worked on developing a more efficient form of communication. They constructed a coded alphabet, in which they would use signs in place for letters, instead of numbers. This made it easier so that the signs/symbols would spell out every word, thus making this form of communication much more efficient. An entire language would therefore be “mapped onto a single dimension of pulses” and would adopt the term of the “dot-and-dash alphabet” (Gleick 20).


The broader, more critical connection I drew between the computing world and the humanities in relation to this event was the magnitude of the writing system which plays a fundamental role in not only the humanities, but the computing world, and everywhere else for that matter. Many individuals, including myself, tend to overlook how crucial of a role the writing system/the alphabet plays in all aspects of our everyday lives. The invention of this universal system draws humans as well as all fields of studies from complete opposite worlds to connect on a basic level of understanding.

In addition, it spurred a gateway for a string of new inventions designated to promoting the spread of communication far and wide, like Morse Code. The areas of both code and the humanities seem to be on two opposite ends of the spectrum, but both of them use the alphabet on an everyday basis, pulling their ideas out of the same toolbox. Although Morse code differs from the form of pure writing, the symbols it comprises are representative of the alphabet which is powerful in itself. To me, it seemed as if both worlds, computing and the humanities, rely on each other in a means to stimulate growth in terms of knowledge and further technological advances. Both these worlds rely on the writing system and the alphabet more than they probably realize. Without this universal foundation that is consistently present in our everyday lives, Samuel F. B. Morse wouldn’t have the tools to create his own form of communication, and I wouldn’t be reading about his invention and its significance to humanity. Without the melding of these two worlds, of whom I originally saw as polar opposites, humanity may not be where we are today in regard to our various advancements in communication and technology.

Digital Humanities and the Advancement of Technology

Mitchell Pace

With the dawn of our digital age, we have been able to do so much; whether it be looking up facts or sending links or emails to multitudes of people. It is easier than ever to spread information and learn from and/or about any culture. It is incredible to think about how through various symbols and alphabets, we can gorge on information from anywhere, sitting at a computer or on a phone or television.

Through this stream of information, we reach out faster and broader than ever before, allowing more cultural awareness and acceptance. We know more about each other despite the distance and language barriers that has made the spread of knowledge a much more daunting and difficult task. As James Gleick points out in “The Information,” technology has changed drastically over the times. What would be used to send signals or just communicate in one’s culture could be completely different from another culture or even how they were in the past. Gleick describes the use of drums in sub-Saharan Africa as a prime example of a culture’s unique form of communication, stating, “While only some people learned to communicate by drum, almost anyone could understand the messages in the drumbeats. Some people drummed rapidly and some slowly. Set phrases would recur again and again, virtually unchanged, yet different drummers would send the same message with different wording.” (15). Gleick also touches on how Europeans would be caught off guard by this form of communication until they were able to figure it out. There was a lot of hard work put into understanding the patterns and messages, but what is even more amazing is that we can now just sit at home and google the drum messaging system to learn more about it and have a better understanding of the culture. Where before, getting to understand people of different cultures was immensely difficult, like with sub-Saharan Africa, through digital technology, it is as easy as the push of a button. Digital humanities has allowed an easier understanding of cultures throughout human history and allows us to sit at home and learn and educate others through the sending of a link or just keep reading up on others, allowing a better understanding.

Talking Drums and Senseless Societies

Caroline Crimmins

James Gleick’s national bestseller, The Information has increased my knowledge of past, present, and predictions for future knowledge and its effects. Similarly to Tom Standage’s The World in Six Glasses, Gleick addresses different technological innovations and how they have, and still are possibly, impacting the world and how we think and live. Standage’s novel addressed the most influential and popular six drinks that have shaped the society that we live in today. These drinks include beer, wine, coffee, tea, Coca Cola, and spirits. Each of these drinks, like the innovations and inventors Gleick writes about, changed the society that people knew. Coca Cola, like iPhones, printing presses and more, took the world by storm. Gleick’s book and Standage’s book have similar formats in that they both address important influences on societies in distinct chapters. Both books prove how important inventions can be in societies and the whole world. 

The invention I was most impressed by was the creation of the talking drums in sub-Saharan Africa, which could communicate poetic messages using the tonal differences over long distances. The passage I picked talks about Carrington’s realization when he finally discovered the important inflections in the drum tones. Gleick writes, “In solving the enigma of the drums, Carrington found the key in a central fact about the relevant African languages. They are tonal languages, in which meaning is determined as much by rising or falling pitch contours as by distinctions between consonants or vowels. This feature is missing from most Indo-European languages, including English, which uses tone only in limited syntactical ways: for example to distinguish questions from declarations. But for other languages, including, most famously, Mandarin and Cantonese, the tone has primary significance in distinguishing words. So it does in most African languages. Even when Europeans learned to communicate in these languages, they generally failed to grasp the importance of tonality, because they had no experience with it. When they transliterated the words they heard into the Latin alphabet, they disregarded pitch altogether. In effect, they were color-blind” (Gleick 23). At this moment, I realized not only how egocentric cultures could be, but also blind to cultures which at the time they considered “below them.” 

A multitude of people had passed through those African countries and civilizations, privileged to hear the beautiful beats and tones, blessing their ears. They, like most people in their culture, were practically tone-deaf. Although the messages communicated through the drums were quite lengthy- “about eight times as long as their spoken equivalents” (Gleick 27)- the poetic aspect added a cultural beauty that can be quickly overlooked, as it was. Because the culture of the visitors did not utilize the variations of tone, except in punctuation, they paid little to no attention to the technical aspects of a unique language happening before their eyes and ears. Although tonal differences are used minimally in English, they are quite popular in languages like Mandarin, as seen in Gleick’s quote on page twenty-three, or written above. 

Today in society, we are absolutely obsessed with technology- phones, laptops, tablets, practically anything we can get our hands-on. Like flies, we swarm towards the light, unaware of all the magic happening behind the scenes. In this respect, I believe that English 340 is one of the most beneficial classes I have taken so far at SUNY Geneseo. There are so many technical aspects that are glazed over for our convenience as technology users. Before this class, I had never heard of markdown (or markup), CSS, or how to find out what is behind my GUI. If someone had told me I would be learning the things I am now, I would have said that was impossible. Society today is truly “color-blind” (Gleick 23) to the technology at our fingertips. Gleick solidifies the connection between computing and the humanities by giving the reader the example of the talking drums. Something that was right in front of their eyes was unknown, just like the many mysteries in the devices we are glued to.

Gleick’s best-seller allows us to reflect on our origins in technology as a world. Without the technology we invented back then, we would have nowhere near what we have now. Every step is progress, but it is important to be in tune with all cultures and inventions. Something as small as an inflection at the end of a sound can change certain meanings drastically. By learning about the past, we are more inclined to learn about the present and the future of technology. The more we know, the more aware we will be of language, technology, and the connections between computing and the humanities. 

Intelligence is the Awareness of Information

I am struck by Glieck’s phrase, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (12). The span of humanity develops as a whole with the more we find, the more we learn. Our knowledge today is based off thousands of years of contributions by countless people to the collective intelligence of humanity. Our modern formation of the English language is one such example. Glieck discusses how language has evolved through the years from cave paintings to oral culture to the written word to the digital word of codes behind a screen. The language of computers, such as binary code, doesn’t even need letters to communicate — just two digits. As people collect new information, how we communicate is constantly evolving. Our language itself evolves. Prior to the written word or digital technology, there was a lack of permanence to words. They only existed through the memory of the speaker and their listeners. “Now people leave breadcrumbs,” but before that sounds traveled “a few yards and fade[d] into oblivion” (31).
As people were enabled to become more aware because they had access to more words, information trapped to pages, they were able to become more critical. When people “began systematically to gather different print tables in order to check one against the other…they found unexpected flaws” (94). The lingering of words birthed more responsibility. The need for consistency, for rules and standards was demanded because information could be collected and compared through its perpetuity. With these rules, more rules were created. These rules turned into a set of guidelines that created artform and expression – the humanities. For instance, the standard of the novel we know today did not appear overnight. As discussed in a previous class I took centering on epistolarity, it was collections of letters sustaining a narrative that eventually evolved into the formation of the novel. Language has acted as a carrier of information, and as our understanding of language has evolved through the years, so has the sophistication of our information.
If not for language, there would be no information. At a previous college I attended, I took a basic communications class. It was there I learned the story of a boy who was found in the wild raised by wolves. As he had grown past the years of critical language development, he was unable to learn how to communicate through language. Without language, he was unable to understand abstract thought. Information cannot be comprehended without language. The boy had no vehicle in his mind to form thought, ideas. His world existed only in the present moment, driven by what he currently observed with no structure to capture or reflect on it.
Language empowers us to capture information, to think beyond now to the past and future to the information found before us. The development of the written text further empowers us to collect and develop that language. The digital age opens a new realm of possibilities for our language and the development of new language, which leads to further sophistication of information. Information is only as permanent as its container. Information can be irreversibly lost when the books it is written within are destroyed — just look at the Library of Alexandria. With the creation of the computer, the internet, and now the clouds, information has taken on a new permanence. The knowledge previously contained in books is now recorded digitally. Technically, people are now more intelligent than ever with the plethora of information we have access to in a matter of moments. Our abstract thoughts can expand further than before, our understandings of the world more complicated.
With the collection of more information, the more sophisticated information and how it is presented can become. Novels are now digested as ebooks or even audible books. More people are able to create and share language and literature than ever before. As we have become more aware with the information we’ve gathered, so has the technology we store it upon. Computers have their own languages. In one case, Facebook artificial intelligence was able to develop its own language to communicate with each other that wasn’t comprehensible by people. As our technology begins to collect more information as people have done through the ages, will it begin to sophisticate it as we have?

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/08/01/facebook-shuts-robots-invent-language/

The Part vs. The Whole

In our readings thus far from The Information by James Gleick, this passage found in the second chapter stood out to me the most. Here, Gleick describes how Chinese script worked:

Because the basic unit was the word, thousands of distinct symbols were required… One device is simple repetition: tree + tree + tree = forest; more abstractly, sun + moon = brightness and east + east = everywhere. The process of compounding creates surprises: grain + knife = profit; hand + eye = look. Characters can be transformed in meaning by reorienting their elements: child to childbirth and man to corpse. Some elements are phonetic; some even punning.

– Gleick, 32-33

As Gleick discusses in this chapter, Chinese script was one of the most complex and large scripts in ancient times. This was due to the fact that it had the largest set of symbols, and the fact that each symbol itself, individually, carried a copious amount of meaning.  However, by combining these symbols, they were able to create new words and phrases.

Perhaps this is too literal of a connection, but this process of constructing a language reminded me of the process of coding. When you code, each minuscule detail is just as significant as the end result you are trying to achieve. An example of this would be our recent class activity of creating a .html webpage using Visual Studio Code. In doing so, it was necessary to input the different elements of the webpage (such as the title and body paragraphs) in order for the page to work correctly. It was not as simple as typing the text directly into the VS Code file, though. Every element required a command line before and after it.

As Gleick also says:

The alphabet is the most reductive, the most subversive of all scripts.

– Gleick, 33

Despite that it may require more effort to communicate properly, as you have to move from letters to words to sentences, the alphabet truly does make communication simpler and more accessible for everyone. It is difficult to imagine a world today the same as when Chinese script was used. Communication would take much longer, and you would run the risk of accidentally saying/writing the wrong thing.

I believe that this idea of the part versus the whole found in computing carries over to the humanities, or more specifically, language. Similar to coding, words do not always make sense on their own. We need context – or more words in conjunction to create commands, questions, stories, etc. If we go one step further, and break words down into letters, then we can really see how alike the two are. Random letters thrown together do not work – they need structure and meaning. By sequencing and weaving together different parts, the overall whole is more clear and precise.