Writing the World

Sheldon Pacotti, writing in Salon, makes some connections between languages, education, freedom, surveillance, and new technologies that is worth reading by those who haven’t noticed the connections already. This paragraph really caught my attention:

As the computer becomes the central tool for research and development, scientific knowledge takes on a new character. Like software, it becomes primarily functional rather than descriptive. During the age of the printing press – which brought with it dictionaries, encyclopedias, tables, journals, proofs, and the modern community of scientists – the project of science appeared to be the “understanding” or “description” of the natural world, which was conceived of as a clockwork set in motion by God. The engineer meanwhile peered into this vast, static field of knowledge and applied the insights that were useful for a particular problem. Now it seems that the project of science is not primarily to represent the natural world with language but to reconfigure the natural world as language, so that it can be composed, transformed, and manipulated in the ways our minds are equipped to operate upon knowledge itself. (italics in original)

The italicized phrase really hits something I’ve been seeing all over the place in my recent intellectual wanderings. The computer gives us an amazing amount of power to simulate our world and then to use those simulations to create new artifacts, from bridges and buildings today to new genes and genomes tomorrow.

It’d be interesting to trace out the intellectual histories that have moved us to a view of the world as a language that can be manipulated. Starting with calculus and moving forward through the periodic table and into the twentieth century we see an increasing number of abstractions reified in the form of new languages. Computers seem to be one of the more fertile fields for the creation of these languages. Would such a transformation have occurred without computers?

My own background in philosophy and literary criticism points to trends in analytic philosophy looking at the structure of language from the beginning of this century. Wittgenstein, Church, Tarski, Turing and others connect philosophy into computer science. On the continent we have Heidegger, Barthes, Derrida, the structuaralists and more. All of them seem to have been approaching a vision of the world as a semiotic web. Up to this point in history we have only been able to read the world. If Pacotti is right, and I think he is, we will soon be able to write the world.

My own personal conflict is a matter of deciding what I want to do with my life. I want to continue my professional education by returning to school for an advanced degree but there is always a fissure in me between returning to science, whether computer sci or biology (two areas of immense interest to me and likely to change the world in the near future), or following a more humanistic approach by studying law or library science. All of these areas are intrinsically interesting and there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to be an expert in all of them.