Monday, August 16, 2010

The language in "things"

It might come as a surprise that all the physical tools and objects we humans use are actually "concretized language".

Things are nothing more than concepts or ideas in a physical form, the results of our actions in response to questions that explore how we might do something or what to do next. Or implemented action in the form of lists of things to do that reorganize nature.

In a very real sense, everything we find in nature is simply organized information. The fundamental forces of nature such as gravity and electromagnetism guide how matter is organized. DNA guides the way organisms are assembled from the raw materials of atoms. We have learned how to manipulate these information processing systems in extraordinary ways. It is what defines us as a species.

The Russian psychologist, A.N. Leont'ev shows that sequences of automatic motor actions - either speech or gesture - eventually become a tool we can use. First a psychological tool or method which is merely a list of steps and eventually the phsyical tool that automates the method. The neurophysiologist A.R. Luria called the neural programs for speech and gesture muscle actions "kinetic melodies". The two are often produced together.

Consider for a moment the software you use to write a story, paint a picture, send an email or reconcile your bank accounts. These seemingly "physical" tools are simply words written by the programmer to tell your computer what to do next. The language is translated from words into mathematical symbols, 0s and 1s that determine how electricity will flow through your computer to actuate switches.

Or consider the pathway from a physical action to a physical tool. The common cup grew out of the gesture of a cupped hand. Before that we drank just like other animals, mouth in the water. Here's how it works. Imagine you are one of your ancestors, the inventor of the cup:

1. Bend down and stick nose in water to drink like other animals.
2. You think: Too hard. But what if I.....
3. Cup hand. Scoop up water and bring to mouth.
4. You think: Much easier. But what if I...
5. Find container like a cup that scoops up water.
6. You think: Very easy. But what if I...want to re-use it
7. Make list of steps to make cup. Make cup.

Conretized language takes many forms. The instructions that drive your computer software to display a character or a word, or print the words and symbols on a page are language. The sculpture that is left after you chisel away the surplus stone to reveal hidden inside the physical representation of an idea is language. Skyscrapers, jumbo jets and electrical power are just the re-organization of our nearby universe using instructions - our most powerfully organized words and concepts, in the most amazing order, made with electro mechanical devices such as metal cutting machines whose internal computer programs control the angle, depth, shape and speed of cutting or polishing or electroplating. There's even a new kind of printer that can print familiar objects such as appliance or car parts, one layer of atoms at a time, assembled in the same way as the printed word. All language.

Language of sorts has been with us a long time. It's not just humans that communicate. It's prairie dogs who warn others about danger, or bees that return to the hive with clear instructions where to find the best pollen, or proteins that help DNA do it's job of creating a new cell. Or light that communicates with matter in a way that re-organizes them both.

When we start to think of language this way it becomes much easier to see the universe as an amazingly rich conversation between the past and the future that has been going on for billions of years. And we are just one small part of this amazing story.

So here's some questions to explore this idea:

1. Give examples of the following different kinds of language: utterances, symbols, signs, conversations, concepts, questions, theories, statements, stories, poetry, lists, plans, methods, narratives, advertising slogans, newsapaper headlines.
2. What kind of extra powers do these forms of language give humans? Choose one and describe it's powers.
3. When humans invented the written word, what did this allow us to do, we could not do before? What did we have to do before? And before that?
4. What is the connection between human action/activity and language/gesture?
5. Imagine you are one of the first humans to speak. What do you imagine you spoke about. What kinds of words, signs, symbols or gesture did you use?
6. Thinking about an object in everyday use in our world, trace the language/gestural function of the tool back to its origins e.g. cup, cupped hand, drinking from water in a river or stream.
7. Make a list of all the parts of a jumbo jet or a motor car. Imagine and describe the journey from the past to the present for each of these parts.

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