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.

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