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.