[Humanist] 30.57 language before

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat May 28 08:43:09 CEST 2016

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 57.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 27 May 2016 07:25:45 +0000
        From: Bill Pascoe <bill.pascoe at newcastle.edu.au>
        Subject: Re:  30.54 language before?
        In-Reply-To: <20160527045721.D88706894 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

Some more thoughts, as requested.

Among the things that most characterise us as Homo Sapiens are our abilities with language and with tools. If tool use, or 'technology', and language, are necessary conditions for being classed as Homo Sapiens, we have always been cyborgs. When it boils down to it, a computer is a language tool. It's invention and core functionality is symbol processing, and its higher order functioning is also largely about communicating, representation, etc. It seems a mistake then to think of computers as being separate to our 'true', 'real' or 'essential' humanity though they are often characterised as such. What could be more human? You don't see other plants and animals inventing computers. Why they do seem alien is their newness. Latour and others have written a lot about the process of technology adoption. I like to characterise it as the opposite process to the Russian formalist technique of 'ostranenie' or 'making strange', where something that is automatic is purposefully problematised to make you notice its functioning - or Heidegger's example of how we don't notice we are using the floor until it falls out from under us. In our distinctly human process of adopting new technology, the cybernetic process, it is difficult and problematic at first, and little by little becomes fully automated, and our interactions with technology become unconscious. We don't think about how to turn on a light bulb. Learning to drive is difficult but eventually you simply go to work without noticing the accelerator, brake and indicator. At this moment in history, there are drastically more people than ever in the world, all positioned in a system of technological competition that leads to many new technologies happening at once. It's only this speed that makes new technology seem 'unnatural' - lots of new technology comes at us all at once and we get technoshock, technophobia, the shock of the new, etc. Analogue devices seem more natural to us, but were extraordinary in their day. Cooking pots are tools, but they seem very natural. If you speak to a 'digital native' they will argue vehemently that interaction through social media is a valid form of socialisation and is not unreal. There are also examples of how machine communications bring people together physically who would not have otherwise have even known each other existed, even living in the same city - subcultural meet ups, finding gigs online and going to them in person etc. 

To return to the WM's original point, this metaphor for humans and things generally being made of code, being read as a language, is relatively new.

Mayans thought/think men were made of maize, which makes sense because they ate a lot of it, and so were. Christians thought/think people were made of flesh and soul. Enlightenment people thought of body and mind, and that body was a sort of pneumatic clockwork and the mind, real in the sense that maths is real, yet immaterial. Not surprising considering the technological and scientific changes of the time. Now we change the analogy again to match our technology - technology is about how things work, so it makes sense that as it changes so our analogue for how we humans work also changes. Anyone in the future aware of these differences across the ages will be able to critique the naturalisation of the human as bio-code, just as we can, but we are indeed in a unique place to watch it as it happens. What is there to take note of beyond noticing that the shift to the bio-code and the digital human metaphor is happening? What we think we are and how we think we work will have ramifications in all areas of culture - justice, medicine, economic differences, warfare, rights and transgressions of all kinds, what we choose to research and what we do not even notice. So I suppose it would be interesting to see how this changes reasoning in legal cases, in people's economic status, access to health care, in how it is used as the reason and justification for taking this or that action. That is where the shift in ideas and analogues has real physical material consequences in people's lives.

Dr Bill Pascoe
eResearch Consultant
Digital Humanities Lab
Centre for 21st Century Humanities

T: 0435 374 677
E: bill.pascoe at newcastle.edu.au

The University of Newcastle (UON)
University Drive
Callaghan NSW 2308

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