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.