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.

The Inconsistency of the English Language

Chapter 3 of The Information by James Gleick talks about certain differences in the English language. One that I find the most interesting is about the original two workbooks that were created for the English language.

The first influencer of this Robert Cawdrey, who created A Table Alphabeticall, which introduced us to creating our alphabet. This table helps to show the start of our language, and what we should value to add to it. Since this table was one of the first to be introduced in a different language then what others new, it became difficult for others to adapt or adjust to and had a negative effect in certain areas and tribes.

The next important book that was created for language was the Oxford English Dictionary. This information outlet was made by John Simpson and became an adaptation of table alphabeticall. The main reason I am giving all of this information, is because this is still our main standard for the English language, at least one hundred years after it was created.

A main point mentioned in this chapter is about how unneccessary letters, due to the Latin adaptation, have disappeared since the dictionary was created. For example when talking about the word figurate, you can see that this word has now been adapted into the verb figurative. Since the definition (page 60, for reference) is “to shadowe, or represent, or to counterfaire” we can also see that the definitions given for certain words are simple and understandable for multiple reading levels.

I think the main takeaway I got from this chapter was that we always have to start somewhere with language, no matter which language it is. Since it is a main form of communication it is important to put emphasis on being able to adapt to change in order for you to survive. Also I should mention that the reason I decided to post on this chapter is because of my fascination with the English language. In my opinion, every language is unique to its own culture or way, but I also think that English is the most complex to understand and explain.

Being that I want to be an English teacher after college, I think it is important to know and talk about the origin of the language and why we should care about all of the parts of the English language. The English language in itself has two distinct differences from other languages; no geographic location, and more than 40 phonemes in the lexicon. I think these points are important to know as an English major, and since it is my first language. I also have gained a lot of knowledge about the English language from my cultural anthropology class. This class helps me to realize that our language is complicated to anyone who does not readily know about it, and can overall cause a lot of confusion for others.

Overall I appreciate that this entire chapter talked about different aspects about the development of the English language, and how we identify and use it today. I think this chapter should be mentioned and used more often for more English speakers to understand all the fun and different parts of the language.

Communication and Shared Experience

According to James Gleick, in the late 1500’s, “Barely five million people on earth spoke English (a rough estimate; no one tried to count the population of England, Scotland or Ireland until 1801). Barely a million of those could write.” However, he also mentions that over the course of four centuries, the number of English speakers jumped to one billion people. This is partly due to the creation of the dictionary.

The creation of the dictionary is key in understanding the evolution of communication and shared experience over time. While the dictionary is a convenient place to look up words and definitions, it is also an irreplaceable part of English culture. This is because the dictionary documents the continuing development of our society and provides an important record of the evolution of the English language. 

In chapter three of “The Information”, James Gleick tells the story of how Robert Cawdrey wrote his Table Alphabeticall, the first monolingual dictionary in English. Cawdrey knew that his typical reader, a book-buying Englishman, could live a lifetime without encountering a set of data ordered alphabetically because more sensible ways of ordering words came first. For instance, the Chinese arranged the two thousand entries in their dictionary by meaning, and Egyptians and Arabians had word lists organized on philosophical or educational principles. These were thought provoking, creative means of organization. However, Cawdrey wanted to create a list that was more mechanical, effective, and automatic. 

Many years later, Thomas Blount wrote a dictionary containing more than eleven thousand words. His definitions were much more elaborate than Cawdrey’s, and he even provided information about the origins of each word. Sadly enough though, he didn’t pay homage to Cawdrey and his work. This is unfortunate, because despite the fact that it was never deemed a particularly useful work, if Cawdrey had not decided to compile two thousand words and list them in his Table Alphabeticall, it is possible that Blount wouldn’t have written his dictionary.

The first editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did mention Cawdrey in regards to their work. These editors called him ‘the original acorn’ from which their oak had grown. And boy, did their oak grow. After combing through several works of classic literature, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary managed to include nearly four hundred thousand words and phrases in ten volumes. This was an incredible feat, especially considering this dictionary was first published in 1928 – during a time when they lived without all of the helpful technology we have now.

Dictionaries continue to expand because language is always changing. No dictionary is ever really complete, and this includes the new, modernized versions of dictionaries that we access digitally. In 1989, with some help from a complicated software, Oxford editors managed to add five thousand new words to their popular reference work, both digitally and in print. Today the Oxford English Dictionary is still under alteration. 

By informing readers on the history of the English dictionary, Gleick is insinuating that as dictionaries are written and expanded upon, humans only become more interested in words, and this is what leads to more English speaking individuals.

When the number of English speaking individuals increases, numerous connections can be formed within our society, which only results in an increase in communication and shared experiences. As we know, communication and shared experience are important when discussing the humanities.

The Humanities and Computing

On the first day of class, Professor Schact led a conversation regarding the concept of the humanities. He encouraged the class to interpret this definition. While Google simplifies the term as “academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture,” as well as “the human race,” our class explored alternative definitions as we each related the term to our own majors.

On the first day of class, Professor Schact led a conversation regarding the concept of the humanities. He encouraged the class to interpret this definition. While Google simplifies the term as “academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture,” as well as “the human race,” our class explored alternative definitions as we each related the term to our own majors.

I explored this concept in my own individual lens. I took a hold of it psychologically, since I am a psychology major. Because of this, I pay close attention to people’s behavior and the way they interact with others. Based on this, I interpreted this term as a way of understanding people and more specifically, understanding how people relate. 

Others of us in the class who may be history or mathematics majors internalized this discussion more in terms of theorem or in terms of field ideas. While we did not all arrive at just one correct answer as to how to define this concept, I do believe that our inability to concretely decide on one definition of the humanities in itself showed the beauty of the term. This class discussion further demonstrated the way in which academic disciplines are so interconnected. Not only are they interconnected as broadly as the material, but also in the words that are used to identify concepts and terms. This umbrella term of the humanities only goes to show how applicable this term is to life itself, which shows what it means to be human.  

Furthermore, a strong relationship exists between computing and the humanities. While I typically associate computing with mathematics and STEM, this term also refers to communication. Last semester I took an Interpersonal Communication class with an esteemed professor, and I realized just how expansive communication is; I do it every day by calling, texting, facetiming, speaking, and writing. It is a continuously ongoing process. To fully link this connection, communication is one of the foundations of the humanities. The only way philosophers years ago were able to make more discoveries and were able to explore ideas is because of communication and sharing ideas. Without this as a foundation, the humanities would be underdeveloped. 

James Gleick discusses the idea of the dictionary in chapter three of his novel The Information. This chapter largely focuses on the production of dictionaries and the growth of vocabulary over time. At the time, philosophers tried to discover every word in the world, but they realized that in order to define a word, such as science, they needed to develop language. To demonstrate this ongoing growth, Gleick defined the dictionary as a “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic” (66). In other words, the academic disciplines within the humanities, as well as all other outside knowledge, continuously contribute to this project. The dictionary itself is a reflection of communication between and among people, and also exhibits history as it displays the origin of words. In order to communicate, people need to have a basis of words, and further, words are needed to communicate ideas. The dictionary, as described in the text, is in a specific, organized order. This order is referred to as alphabetic order. It simplifies the searching process so that words can be easily found and also brings additional meaning to words. As said, “only when printing – and the dictionary… could anyone develop a sense of word meaning as interdependent or even circular. Words had to be considered as words, representing other words, apart from thing” which further indicates that in order to understand any word, language itself needs to be understood (66). This itself is the epitome of communication. The only way I can understand or even articulate my own thoughts whether in this assignment or even in a conversation is by understanding the meaning of the words I am using and what meaning they contribute to the sentence I am forming. Words bring rise to more words which further develops vocabulary and meaning. 

To further forge this connection regarding the meanings of words and the connections between people and language, Gleick also includes, “The dictionary ratifies the persistence of the word. It declares that the meanings of words come from other words.  It implies that all words, taken together, form an interlocking structure: interlocking, because all words are defined in terms of other words” (66). This concept of circularity is a good representation of the dictionary and is also supportive of the basis of the humanities. The humanities comprise all of these academic disciplines. Each discipline uses words and concepts that are essential to its study. And these words are also found in other disciplines. For instance, I may learn about Measures of Central Tendency (MCT) such as mean, median, and mode in a statistics class for mathematics. With how interlocked different subject matters are, I may also learn about this exact material as it applies to Behavioral Research Methods for psychology. Just as the dictionary demonstrates circularity within its language, this circularity is then evident within majors and classes. Communication interlocks with the humanities. 

On the first day of class, Professor Schact led a conversation regarding the concept of the humanities. He encouraged the class to interpret this definition. While Google simplifies the term as “academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture,” as well as “the human race,” our class explored alternative definitions as we each related the term to our own majors.

I explored this concept in my own individual lens. I took a hold of it psychologically, since I am a psychology major. Because of this, I pay close attention to people’s behavior and the way they interact with others. Based on this, I interpreted this term as a way of understanding people and more specifically, understanding how people relate. 

Others of us in the class who may be history or mathematics majors internalized this discussion more in terms of theorem or in terms of field ideas. While we did not all arrive at just one correct answer as to how to define this concept, I do believe that our inability to concretely decide on one definition of the humanities in itself showed the beauty of the term. This class discussion further demonstrated the way in which academic disciplines are so interconnected. Not only are they interconnected as broadly as the material, but also in the words that are used to identify concepts and terms. This umbrella term of the humanities only goes to show how applicable this term is to life itself, which shows what it means to be human.  

Furthermore, a strong relationship exists between computing and the humanities. While I typically associate computing with mathematics and STEM, this term also refers to communication. Last semester I took an Interpersonal Communication class with an esteemed professor, and I realized just how expansive communication is; I do it every day by calling, texting, face-timing, speaking, and writing. It is a continuously ongoing process. To fully link this connection, communication is one of the foundations of the humanities. The only way philosophers years ago were able to make more discoveries and were able to explore ideas is because of communication and sharing ideas. Without this as a foundation, the humanities would be underdeveloped.

James Gleick discusses the idea of the dictionary in chapter three of his novel The Information. This chapter largely focuses on the production of dictionaries and the growth of vocabulary over time. At the time, philosophers tried to discover every word in the world, but they realized that in order to define a word, such as science, they needed to develop language. To demonstrate this ongoing growth, Gleick defined the dictionary as a “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic” (66). In other words, the academic disciplines within the humanities, as well as all other outside knowledge, continuously contribute to this project. The dictionary itself is a reflection of communication between and among people, and also exhibits history as it displays the origin of words. In order to communicate, people need to have a basis of words, and further, words are needed to communicate ideas. The dictionary, as described in the text, is in a specific, organized order. This order is referred to as alphabetic order. It simplifies the searching process so that words can be easily found and also brings additional meaning to words. As said, “only when printing – and the dictionary… could anyone develop a sense of word meaning as interdependent or even circular. Words had to be considered as words, representing other words, apart from thing” which further indicates that in order to understand any word, language itself needs to be understood (66). This itself is the epitome of communication. The only way I can understand or even articulate my own thoughts whether in this assignment or even in a conversation is by understanding the meaning of the words I am using and what meaning they contribute to the sentence I am forming. Words bring rise to more words which further develops vocabulary and meaning. 

To further forge this connection regarding the meanings of words and the connections between people and language, Gleick also includes, “The dictionary ratifies the persistence of the word. It declares that the meanings of words come from other words.  It implies that all words, taken together, form an interlocking structure: interlocking, because all words are defined in terms of other words” (66). This concept of circularity is a good representation of the dictionary and is also supportive of the basis of the humanities. The humanities comprise all of these academic disciplines. Each discipline uses words and concepts that are essential to its study. And these words are also found in other disciplines. For instance, I may learn about Measures of Central Tendency (MCT) such as mean, median, and mode in a statistics class for mathematics. With how interlocked different subject matters are, I may also learn about this exact material as it applies to Behavioral Research Methods for psychology. Just as the dictionary demonstrates circularity within its language, this circularity is then evident within majors and classes. Communication interlocks with the humanities. 

Power in Language

Through our interconnected world, we have learned to rely on different mediums to obtain different information. Whether it be Google, Youtube, the news, or library books, we are bound to find different resources to learn new information. But, we rarely stop to think about what would happen if the information that has been internalized, in both online and printed materials, was erased and there was no way of knowing past history. As Gleick introduced in Chapter 2, “The Persistence of the World”, “to subtract the technologies of information internalized over two millenia requires a leap of imagination backwards to a forgotten past” (pg 28).  Through my time at SUNY Geneseo, I have been a part of different conversations about the meaning of language and its importance. As an English Adolescent Education major with a linguistics background, I have realized that there is a deep correlation between the ways in which language has shaped our culture, identity, and history. Before understanding the interconnectedness between the impact of language and new information, it is important to understand the processes in which we go about learning new topics. 

Chapter two dives deep into the meaning of “looking up” something online or in printed texts. But, what does it mean when we are “looking up” something? Does it mean that we are researching something for the sake of finding an answer, or are we researching something to learn new information? I would say that there is a distinction between being able to identify an answer to something one “looks up” and being able to understand the new piece of information. Most of the time, we are told to complete an assignment that requires heavy research but in that process, we mostly find answers to the questions we are looking for. Through different research projects, I have neglected to think about where the information originated from, the impact the information had on those that were researched, and the future implications of other readers. It’s important that we sometimes take a step back and think about how what we read, what we research, and what we write plays a role in the ways we are connected through language. 

In one of my linguistics classes, I came across an article by Cambridge University Press titled, “American English: History, Structure, and Usage” that explains language, the importance of it, and how we have developed its power. Within the article, I learned about the term idiolect, which refers to a person’s use of language within a particular context. Most of the time, we think about us either engaging in formal or informal conversations, but it’s important to think about the contexts of different conversations and how we interact within each. The Information by James Gleick brings light to the power of language through the lens of personal knowledge. Essentially, before language became widespread, information was contained within our minds and shared only with those we spoke to. After the writing language was created, the knowledge that many had started to spread. Symbols, pictures, and writing languages were created to represent different concepts.

Today, our words are powerful and when we say something, it is more powerful. Through the sharing of knowledge, we become more powerful and also learn a lot more. It’s important to think that as we keep evolving technologically as a society, we will find new ways to convey different information. But, what’s more important is how we think about how information has evolved and the impact that sharing that information has on us. Language is more than the spread of knowledge, in some instances, it is the communication and unpacking of it. It’s weird to think that the information we have internalized, or rather our technological devices has internalized would require a lot of imagination if it were to be erased.

The effect of computing on innovation in the humanities

I like Stanford’s definition of the humanities on their humanities website. Their definition is “the study of how people process and the document the human experience.” This manifests into many different academic fields like philosophy, literature, history, language, and several other subject that all fit under the humanities umbrella. Computing or the use of computers completely changes the way that we can process and document these subjects. In order to further develop the humanities, people will still process their own experience in the same way but the human experience has changed due to the vast globalization that computing has aided. The scope of what can be processed and accessed is vastly higher through the internet and all of the information that is stored online.

A part of the reading from Gleick that really stood out to me was the part of chapter 3 that talks about how words were spelled. In the reading it talked about how each time that someone sat down to write something they came up with the spelling however they saw fit. “In fact, few had the concept of spelling—the idea that each word, when written, should take a particular predetermined form of letters” (p. 53) I was very surprised to read this because in my mind the way that words are spelled are so set in stone. However, in actuality it was only four centuries ago that most people didn’t even have the concept of words having a specific order. When I was reading this, I related this to how quickly documentation as a whole has progressed. The state of information technology was so poor compared to what we have now. The influx of computers and the internet into our daily lives completely changes what is possible in terms of documentation, the information you can find, and the sharing of this information. Nowadays you can access information on the humanities from all around the world. This gives those trying to innovate and learn more about these certain subjects way more material to widen their own thinking. So much of philosophy, literature, and language has been developed during times where access to information was so limited. The ability to access information that computing has given us makes me believe that we can progress in any subject at a faster rate. Nowadays, the average person who is interested in a subject can learn from experts in fields that they would have no chance to learn about in the past. This gives many people the ability to fast track their experience learning from the past. Subsequently giving them much more time and experience to innovate within their fields and compare with people all around the world.

I also found chapter 5 to be interesting in how many different ways people tried to develop the telegraph. I think that this shows that some of the great minds at that time realized the effect that quick transfers of information could possibly have to life. Later in the chapter, there is a part that talks about telegraph in a way that I thought was interesting. It says “ the telegraph served not just as a device but as a medium—a middle, intermediary state. The concept of using some sort of medium to transfer information is used in computers all the time and is one of its greatest functions. With modern computers we have all sorts of different websites that act as mediums that can be very specific to what the individual person wants to find. This ties into the point I made the last paragraph regarding the ability to progress within subjects. Now that we have all of these built in mediums in the internet our access to information is incredible. The more minds that are able to access education in certain fields will inevitably progress the fields at a faster rate in terms of innovation then we have ever seen.

The Three Functions of Language

In his book, The Information, James Gleick touches upon the ways in which language serves as the conveyer of information, which I found particularly interesting in relation to how our computers engage with language. That being said, after taking the time to reflect on the various functions of my computer, I am beginning to recognise that there seems to a connection between the ways our computers recognise information, directions, and expressions and the ways in which we, as English speakers, manipulate language to carry out these three functions. 

I was specifically intrigued by Gleick’s argument: “With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow.” (Gleick 31). As an English major, when I think of the English language, I enjoy paying close attention to the function of symbols. At the micro level, I believe symbols begin first as characters (similar to the keys on our keyboard) that are formed into groups, which become words that can represent various definitions. From there, we group these words into unique combinations in order to convey meaningful sentences and functions that we as students of the humanities, later unpack or deconstruct for depth, significance, and meaning. 

Gleick’s observation about symbols in language is a notion that I am currently engaging with in Dr. Lydia Kertz’s Chaucer and His World course. As we read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, our class is encouraged to think about the Middle English text and its respective translations. Oftentimes one word can have various spellings but essentially represent the same idea. Take for instance, the noun tyranny, which appears as tirrannie, tirauni, tireni, and thirannie in the middle english text yet each variation of the word still represents the usual characteristics of a cruel despot. Gleick makes a clever observation when he points out: “words were fugitive, on the fly, expected to vanish again thereafter” (Gleick 53). This concept makes the most sense to me when I think about Chaucer’s pilgrims engaging in storytelling because they are all essentially spinning their own tales and the language they use is fleeting. So it becomes Chaucer’s responsibility as the the writer, to document these tales and decide which variation of a word or symbol he will use to represent the meaning of the story. In a sense, Chaucer as the documenter is also engaging with the informative function of language because these tales teach us as modern readers about the social changes, religious tensions, and various lifestyles of late medieval England.

That being said, when I reconsider the functions and symbols that I manipulate on my keyboard, I realise that I am also engaging with the informative function of language when I use my computer. For instance, when I need information on locating a file on my desktop, I simply use the Command-spacebar combination and I can easily request a search. The same concept can be applied when I use the Command-F combination to locate a particular phrase in a document or webpage. In addition to manipulating my computer’s informative function of language, I am also engaging with the directive functions. For example, when I want to take a screenshot of the entire screen, I simply press Command-Shift-3 and my computer immediately recognises my command. While it is evident that our computers can carry out commands and requests, they can also engage in expressive language as well. In chapter two, Glieck posits that one way of deciphering Marshall McLuhan’s critique of print “would be to say that print offers only a narrow channel of communication. The channel is linear and even fragmented…If the ideal of communication is a meeting of souls, then writing is a sad shadow of the ideal” (Gleick 43). While McLuhan may be justified in his belief that communication ought to be a meeting of souls, I do not necessarily agree that print is the antithesis of this ideal. Communication is not limited to gestures or touch, in fact, when we direct our computers to italicise, bold, or underline certain words or phrases by using combinations like Command-I, Command-B, and Command-U we are engaging in the expressive function of language. The functions that we use not only provide emphasis to the ideas that we want to convey, but it also expresses emotions and attitudes as well. 

The Humanities and Information, Art and Artificial Intelligence

In thinking about the intersection between digital information and the humanities, I am drawn to a discussion we had as a class on artificial intelligence and its impact on online publication. At the edge of technology driving the world forward in terms of productivity, job creation, and countless untold applications is artificial intelligence. AI is a new frontier of collaboration and creation which will inevitably change the world in radical ways. With radical change comes anxiety and fears about what will be lost in the present. Disregarding anxieties over a changing job economy and robot overlords, a far more reasonable concern to have over what artificial intelligence will mean for us in terms of the spread, collection, and visibility of information in the digital world. In reading James Gleick’s The Information, we are introduced to his ideas on the information age and its titular “lifeblood”, information. Reading The Information has had me thinking about how we as humans are constantly moving towards more effective and instant forms of communication with each other. In finding more effective means of exchanging and distributing information, the circulatory system in play has changed over the years. In the information age, the internet is the most advanced and intricate means of communication we have ever seen. It is also the most easily accessible and widespread. As Gleick outlines, “Like the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. What makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one.”

There is a clear and important way that this is changing how the humanities are being consumed with specific regard to the forums and platforms they are represented on. Journalism, art, music, history, all of these humanities have their most widespread readerbase, viewerbase, and listenerbase on social media. What I’ve been thinking about because of Gleick’s writing and our in class discussions is just how different the time we’re living in is now from all of our past. For the first time, the entities overlooking and moderating the platforms used for discussion of the humanities are no longer human themselves. A week or so I would’ve argued that this is an objectively good thing. Having a standardized and all encompassing set of rules enforced by an unquestioning and unbiased mind seemed like the perfect solution to protection of free speech. If everyone’s speech is judged the same no matter who they are or where they stand politically there can be no selective censorship. An AI moderator would eliminate the need for humans to subject themselves to the negative and harmful content present on any social media platform. That same moderator would be active day and night and to prevent others from seeing such things. I realize how foolish that perspective was having thought it out. It is a danger for the public to view AI in the way that I had previously thought of them.

An AI does not come from nothing, it must be instructed. It is not without bias. An AI will no doubt be a reflection of its creators, their political ideologies, ideas, and values will be represented in it. This is the other danger of allowing an AI to police thought and dialogue. An AI cannot question the ethics of what it does by censoring content based on its parameters which are always subject to change. There is no chance for an AI to make decisions based on anything but what it has been programmed to do. With current machine learning this is a fact. There’s no telling what the future will hold, but at that point of development there may be little difference between a human moderator and an AI. It’s at that point the humanities will be tasked with cataloguing and creating art about a whole new aspect of the human experience. How will the artists, writers, and historians of the future approach artificial intelligence once it becomes difficult to distinguish it from organic? I wonder about this and I hope to see it within my lifetime.