I left my <3 in San Francisco


In his revealing Q&A session in June, Mark Zuckerberg offered a peek into the future of interpersonal communication:

One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.

Wow. That’s really going to require some incredible impulse control. Your inner filter is going to have to kick in not between thought and expression, as it does now, but before the formation of the thought itself. I mean, would you really want to share your raw thought-stream with another person, even a friend? Or maybe the technology will somehow allow you to send out a new thought to retrieve and erase a prior thought before it hits the other person’s brain? Zuck may want instantaneous thought-sharing, but I’m thinking there’s going to have to be some kind of time delay built into the system. Otherwise, the interbrain highway is going to resemble something out of a Mad Max movie.

Helpfully, William Davies puts Zuckerberg’s words into context:

The birth of cybernetics in the 1940s reimagined communication as a form of predictable interaction between any number of physical things, human and non-human. The Harvard mathematician Norbert Wiener developed the concept — which he defined as “control and communication in the animal and the machine” — following a wartime project aimed at increasing the accuracy of anti-aircraft guns. Wiener surmised that pilots react to being shot at in a predictable, patterned fashion. The gunner and the pilot were effectively communicating with each other, despite no words being exchanged, with the actions of each one influencing the actions of the other. …

And in the legacy of the cyberneticians, the purveyors of “smart” technologies promise a form of perfectly predictable interaction between individual and environment, in which nothing needs to be said along the way.

But there is another, less frequently articulated reason why Silicon Valley wants to replace speech. One characteristic of verbal languages is that nobody can own them. Meanwhile, emoji characters are copyrighted, and software can be patented. The machinic capacity to measure emotions via the face or tone of voice is in the possession of businesses, and currently being rapidly capitalized by private-equity investment. Industrial capitalism privatized the means of production. Digital capitalism seeks to privatize the means of communication.

“The limits of language are the limits of my world,” observed Wittgenstein. And: “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” In his early days, Wittgenstein took a different view of language, believing it to be an expression of formal rules, as David Auerbach recently explained:

[Wittgenstein originally thought] that our linguistic statements depict true or false states of affairs, and that formal logic provided the structure that regulates our construction of these statements. Language and the world share logical form, which is also the form of reality. This attempt to regiment language as formal logic went on to be an article of faith for many computer scientists and cognitive scientists for decades, as well as exerting a foundational influence on Noam Chomsky’s linguistics.

What Wittgenstein ultimately came to realize, Auerbach continues, was that

Language did not have such a fixed, eternal relation to reality bound by logic. The process of “measuring” the truth of a statement against reality was neither objective nor cleanly delineated. The meaning of what we say can’t be abstracted away from the context in which we say it: “We are unable clearly to circumscribe the concepts we use; not because we don’t know their real definition, but because there is no real ‘definition’ to them,” Wittgenstein wrote. Instead, our speech acts are grounded in a set of social practices.

The idea of words having relative meanings was not new, but Wittgenstein pioneered the controversial linguistic conception of meaning-as-use, or the idea that the meanings of words, relative or not, cannot be specified in isolation from the life practices in which they are used.

If language is bound up in living, if it is an expression of both sense and sensibility, then computers, being non-living, having no sensibility, will have a very difficult time mastering “natural-language processing” beyond a certain rudimentary level. The best solution, if you have a need to get computers to “understand” human communication, may to be avoid the problem altogether. Instead of figuring out how to get computers to understand natural language, you get people to speak artificial language, the language of computers. A good way to start is to encourage people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance. When we speak with emoji, we’re speaking a language that machines can understand.

People like Mark Zuckerberg have always been uncomfortable with natural language. Now, they can do something about it.

7 thoughts on “I left my <3 in San Francisco

  1. Josh

    A good way to start is to get people to express themselves not through messy assemblages of fuzzily defined words but through neat, formal symbols — emoticons or emoji, for instance. When we speak with emoji, we’re speaking a language that can computers can understand.

    But that’s not true at all. Meanings have popped up around various emoji that their creators never intended — multiple meanings, even, dependent on the context in which they’re deployed. Same goes for Facebook stickers, which my (highly literate) girlfriend and I use to convey all sorts of reactions and emotions more aptly than we could with just words. They’re efficient, but neither neat nor formal, and there’s a totally human dimension to them that computers genuinely can’t — and likely will never — understand. Emoticons, emoji, and stickers (and even their kin — OMG, WTF, and so forth) have always struck me as much more like Eastern ideograms. They permit a kind of poetry and play that can be beautiful.

    None of which renders Davies’s and your suspicions moot — if Facebook, Google, et al. weren’t hoping for some way to monetize stickers eventually, they wouldn’t be pushing them — but the assumption that emoji are some kind of pure language of computers just doesn’t bear scrutiny.

  2. Nick Post author

    You’re right, Josh — sensibility is hard to extinguish — and I’m happy about that.

    Nevertheless, in emoji, as in Like buttons, we see an attempt to render human expression more machine-readable. That doesn’t mean the attempt will succeed, any more than Zuckerberg’s vision of a technology for direct brain-to-brain transmission of messages will come true.

  3. Njf

    Witgenstein’s “pragmatic” turn was the result of his embracing the formal abstractions and the skeptical nominalism of modern logic. Modern logic is already, before computers, a logic for computers, because its formal structure is excessively mathematical- -any sort of qualitative differences are merely “conventional”. Hence, it is no surprise that Wittgenstein turned to the analytic equivalent of the “life world” for meaning.

    But all of this is grounded in the dogmatically skeptical assumption, which is ultimately self-refuting, that the mind does not have any way of grasping real universals. That this is itself a universal claim shows the vapidity of the assumption. Wittgenstein himself shares this problem; in claiming that all meaning is ultimately relative to the particularity of a human language, he makes a claim that has a universal meaning whose content denies this possibility.

    The upshot; its a false limitation of alternatives, between sensible particularity and logical abstraction.

  4. diane

    tell us in 3 Emojis or less


    Aspiring, for profit [MultiNational!] CEO [such as Mark Zuckerberg, et al] delegate! [as a verb] [to the below the totem pole voiceless] speak.

    even though, For Profit Politician [CEO]s are never able to contain even their most frivolous and stunningly self absorbed – many times deadly to those they refuse acknowledge – personal commentaries to 3 Emojis [or sentences] or less; commentaries which are then, horridly and stunningly, regarded as brilliant by those, self serving only, profiteer$ who have no kind, live giving (instead of taking), compass, … whatsoever.

  5. diane


    “In his revealing Q&A session in June, Mark Zuckerberg offered a peek into the future of interpersonal communication …

    First of all, where are all of those- who have the economic/political power to do so – who should be loudly and clearly calling out the implication that Mark Zuckerberg controls and knows the future?????????

    Secondly, can anyone even define what interpersonal communication, versus, personal communication (not meant to be communicated to anyone but the party[ies] it was addressed to, WHEN … that communication is not effecting anyone but those – usually less than fifteen persons – – addressed), even means there; … if anyone does know, could you please explain it to billions of us humans who don’t regard Mark Zuckerberg as our prophet boss man?

    Lastly, one can bet that ALL of Young Mark [Bison Slayer!] Zuckerberg’s most personal communications are not shared with the populace he, insanely, seems to currently have so much power to snoop on – though his own, most personal [precious?], communications are never, EVER, relayed on Facebook – he can still dial Obama, or, Boner (House Leader!), the Kochs, Anna Eshoo, MikeHonda; Zoe Lofgren; DIFI/BLUM; BABS Boxer, Rand Paul (and Daddy), et al, on a secure land line phone, and that conversation is utterly private, certainly not”shared” on his Facebook Page, and, most likely, his quite private communications would be frightening beyond belief to those Marky Boy never had to bother to ask permission from , ..while utterly turning their lives upside down.

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