Weekly Newsletter #16: Text is Technology

If you have been following my newsletters, you know that I am obsessed with text in its various forms:

  1. Writing
  2. Code
  3. Mathematics
  4. Stories

and so on.

As a — more or less — universally literate society, we have pushed text into the background. We read text, but we don’t examine the mechanisms behind text. It’s useful to view text through an engineer’s eyes, since text is technology . It is, in fact, the technology that makes idealism possible.

Philosophers have talked about the clash between idealism and realism for millennia. Simply put, realists privilege hardware over software, while idealists privilege software over hardware. That distinction plays out in every human endeavor. In science, idealists privilege ultimate laws and principles (think string theory) while realists privilege manipulation and prediction (think biology). In foreign policy, realists talk about “the national interest” while idealists talk about democracy and freedom. In IT, idealists write software and realists build hardware.

I am a software kind of guy, though I find hardware immensely fascinating; every major human advance is an interplay between the two. Gutenberg makes both Cervantes and Galileo possible. Computing brings texts and materials together in an unprecedented manner that we’re only beginning to unravel.

Why do I say that?

Consider the archetypal piece of hardware: the machine. Turing showed that machines are nothing but text — the essence of machines is about drawing 0’s and 1’s on paper while erasing and writing those digits. With computing we are now able to control and move objects by writing about them. How amazing is that?

We don’t really understand how that happens though; I think we await new innovations in abstraction before we will understand how text can move stuff. If that sounds awfully like the mind-body problem, you would be right. In other words, AI, cognitive science and the philosophy of mind are tied to the evolution of writing. Put another way, the future of media is the future of the mind.

This Week’s Links

Two articles on media and text.

  1. Why text still rules. Posted earlier, but especially relevant to this discussion.
  2. The future of new media.

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