Monday, March 7, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 4


Summary of Chapter IV: The Mechanism and History of Language

In this chapter Wiener outlines his somewhat non-standard (and he later admits, "amateurish") theory of language. The key is that he sees three parts to language: 1) phonetic; 2) semantic; and 3) behavioral. The first part has to do with transmission; the second with interpretation. [From positing the semantic he turns immediately to memory and how this works in a machine model of the brain. The concept of culture, or of language/semantics as something which exists outside of the brain in relationships between thinkers, is not addressed that I can see]. The third is the problematic aspect because it refers to the behavior of machines, but presumably also non-humans of all kinds, which can be interpreted or received by another; any means by which information can be relayed. Wiener intends this to refer to the process of feedback, but I feel that, per his usage, if I look at my bookshelf and it appears black, this is its behavior in bouncing back the correct rays of light to appear black. This appears to fit his definition of behavior (though he applies it only to machines being controlled by remote operators); yet to call this “language” is a bit silly. Communication or interpretation or even just perception are already competent words for this phenomenon. Anyway this appears to be part of the reason he includes machines (or certain "new machines") as having language, but excludes, for example, ants:

It may seem curious to the reader that we admit ma­chines to the field of language and yet almost totally deny language to the ants. Nevertheless, in construct­ing machines, it is often very important for us to extend to them certain human attributes which are not found among the lower members of the animal community. If the reader wishes to conceive this as a metaphoric extension of our human personalities, he is welcome to do so; but he should be cautioned that the new ma­chines will not stop working as soon as we have stopped giving them human support. (77)

[This is another example of his practice of slippage; the ants don't "stop working" when we stop giving them "human support," either, so what gives? And since when would treating the idea of machines having language in a human way, to be a metaphor, be a form of "human support," and "support" in what sense?]

[Nevertheless where he will probably go with this is: ants have instinctual "taping," but humans are [culturally] adaptive; language is an important aspect of humans' ability to learn and adapt without or beyond the constraints of taping. Old machines are programmed like ants but new ones can learn; therefore they must have something like language.] [Or, to stray further from Wiener, since he does not say this: machines take part in human culture (or whatever the similar term is, used by Stiegler?) and thus have "language" as part of this human interaction].

Because of the way Wiener has defined “language” as anything that carries information, he then ends up using the word "speech" for what would normally be regarded as language per se; with all the limitations that confusing speech with language involves. He explores the reasons why humans have language (or “speech”) and chimps don't, even though humans have to learn it (and chimps seemingly could, but don't). Wiener's solution to this is that chimps don't want to talk: it is not in their nature, they are chimpanzees [his argument for this is laced with moralizing implications: they are good chimpanzees instead of becoming bad humans by learning to speak. He ultimately makes an argument similar to that of the Language Acquisition Device: humans are driven to learn language, and chimps and other primates simply lack this “built-in mechanism” (84). [A reasonable conclusion at the time, though more recent evidence that chimps and orangutans can approach language in other ways (e.g. through sign language) complicates this somewhat].

Wiener ends with interesting observations on the history of Latin and the superiority, due to testing through evolution, of real languages over invented languages. He refers to language as a “joint game by the talker and the listener against the forces of confusion” (92). [It is interesting that for cybernetics "confusion" or entropy is a purely external force (to be resisted); the inside of meaning/subjects etc. is purely about order.] Moving away from Latin was a “sin of pride;” we now have no lingua franca suited for the demands of the present global era and the potential, due to technological advances, of a coming world state.


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