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.