Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sapir Whorf and Language Relativity

When I was a kid, like before middle school, and already presuming I was going to be an engineer like my Grandaddy, I absolutely loved to read Popular Mechanics. I was always building things, and especially liked to build gadgets. Popular Mechanics had plans for kooky gizmos, as I recall. At least one of my close friends was also a fan. I'll be helping him with his bathroom this weekend.

How strange it seems that this magazine is now the one willing to look at oddball topics, blithely crossing political boundaries with seeming agnostic ignorance of their significance. Popular Mechanics extricates itself from the death spiral of algorithmic click-bait, as far as I can tell. It's stealthily highly politically incorrect, in that it seems fundamentally to hew to the real and demonstrable.

And what a strange place to find an article about disappearing languages, though their hook was about how machine learning was trying to help prevent the disappearance. The article was fully cognizant of the ironies. 

I was admitted to several very fine universities back when structural engineers were already a dying species, and then I committed a flim-flam to major in Chinese literature. Which is relevant here because part of my motivation, partially vindicated, was a vague supposition that a different language might inhabit - and create - a different world. I had an early skepticism about objective truth.

Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie to watch it die, I had plenty of angst by college-time about pollution and disappearing species. More recently at a college where I briefly worked, one of my colleagues had started a foundation of sorts attempting to preserve obscure written languages. By that time, I rather thought that this was a quixotic pursuit. 

Maybe even a part of my motivation to study Chinese - also vindicated somewhat - was my sense that there would be only two distinct writing systems left on the planet; the alphabetic and the Chinese character; alphabetic languages converging on English.

Now my angst about the planet is widely shared, the only real exception being denialists and religionists; both tending toward dangerous extremism. Or is it that they celebrate what the rest of is cerebrate? 

But my own despair is highly moderated by memories not so very much removed from my personal memory, of plagues and wars, depressions and floods and even climate disasters caused by volcanoes. It often seems that whatever horrors we might now be facing are moderate in comparison with the brutal lives we so recently lived.

I'm not putting my head in the sand, but my focus is certainly not on fixing things beyond the local. Preserving disappearing species in a kind of gene-bank, or even revivifying them, seems as lost a cause as the attempt to preserve disappearing writing systems. If the ecosystem isn't supporting it, what gets preserved would be, at best, artificial, and at worst a kind of invasive species more deadly than the ones we introduce by accident. 

Those users of a dying alphabet would themselves be marginalizing themselves to the extent that the language remains internalized and native. The point being that they're already marginalized if they speak a dying language. It feels like putting primitives on display at the world's fair. Or a freak show.

I'm far more concerned with those aspects of the mainstream languages - and in this case all languages, including especially Chinese, seem convergent - convergent toward dangerous and obsolete world-views. Trivially, this is a corollary of what we almost universally consider to be a shrinking world. Whether by communications technology, supply chains, instant and un-curated video or what-you-will, we are all becoming one. Our attempts to enforce boundaries are ludicrous at best, and dangerous for the tensions they build. 

As silly as it seems to try to preserve what we've already committed to killing, it seems even sillier to claim some cultural form as a basis to claim insider status. And still more dangerous to base that claim on religion. As much as we are a single people on a "shrinking" planet, we are already a mono-culture. Which feels pretty dangerous in and of itself. 

It can be useful - it feels useful to me - to go back and study someone like Gregory Bateson, who attempts to map what's common to any conception of reality. I find the guy brilliant, while I also find him interestingly misguided. I'm not sure why yet. I think it might have to do with his turn toward cybernetics as a kind of meta-description of systems and how they function. I'll let you know when I figure it out, but be warned that so far as I can tell right now, I'm simply not in Bateson's league. I know you'll agree!

Anyhow, as a case in point, our fear of artificial intelligence seems based on a faulty notion about that in which intelligence consists. We seem to be afraid that artifical intelligence will make what's already terrible about our digital culture even worse. If we do nothing about the stuff we already understand well enough to build laws around it (but fail to do so) then it will certainly make things worse. 

But as it is, I find the fear mongering to be of a piece with the reduction of environmentalism to the single term "climate change." It's a dodge and a PR trick which allows us to keep on keeping on with our current global economic regime - broadly construable as "capitalism" - because we have identified something which is, at least theoretically, fixable. Emit less carbon and we're all good. Right, and I've got a bridge to sell you. 

Prevent all heartless amoral thinking and we're good. Uhhuh, sure. We already promote that kind of thinking, and we already think that tinkering with it will destroy the economy. Yet it's the economy, stupid, that needs work. It's individualism that needs work. We need to deconstruct individual merit, and remind ourselves that no man is an island. 

Almost everything about globalism as we live it is built on a very deadly sort of American conception of life. Home on or at the range and able to survive survivalist-style all by one's lonesome. I'm a prime practitioner of that discipline, but at least I know it for the disease that it is. I desperately wish that there were a healthy society that I would feel good to join. 

Build a healthy society and, microcosm macrocosm, the world takes care of itself. Sure, these secrets may be embodied in the lost language of the Kawésqar  (yes, I too just read The Wager), but getting access to them doesn't mean preserving that culture. By the time we could communicate, whatever the language had meant would be as wiped out as their ability to thrive nearly naked in canoes with fires on their clay bottoms in a frigid squalling climate. Like we're going to have to do if we keep going the way that we are. 

Now we see China, with its facial recognition cameras on every light post and its social credit scoring as the antithesis of American-style freedom, by which we mean individual liberty I think. Heck, many Chinese think so too, and would love to live here, often suggesting that we don't even know how good we have it. 

Meaning they already inhabit American culture, I suppose. Chinese know us a lot better than we know them. 

But you know, if by identifying me as an individual also means to identify me as embedded in a group and that group is as responsible as I am for my behavior, then what's the harm? We already behave Chinese in secret, with every corporation having the virtual serial number of every living American, whether they admit it or not and whether they make use of that information (illegally, of course) or not. They still have it, in principle. 

And guess what? The Chinese can get hold of and use that information, and do, with legal impunity or perhaps even with the encouragement of their government, implied or spoken but surely rewarded in some way. I know this intimately because I recently had a cordial email conversation with a Chinese vendor who quite apparently couldn't resist selling my identity, judging by the instant - like turning on a faucet - spew of phishing emails now following my every online behavior. 

And we, in the background, are encouraging the same thing by villainizing China. I mean I love President Biden in most ways, but his approach to China is misguided. His administration is practically underwriting China's indigenous superseding of those very technologies we're trying to keep from them, because we can't quite believe that anyone can do normal science better than we do. Chauvinism writ very large indeed. 

I doubt very much that we are either more clever or more industrious than the Chinese are. We once did have a more robust educational system, especially at the tertiary level. It's sad to me that education has become such a fraught field. We seem to believe that children will believe whatever their teachers tell them. I'm not sure when that has ever happened.

Children respect teachers who offer them something demonstrably helpful and useful. As the former head of a school for gifted children, I've always thought that we - meaning the world, not my school -were selling a pig in a poke with the idea that you have to get to college to get ahead. Academics do not solve most problems, and most problem solving doesn't reduce to book smarts. 

I think the whole message was really about offloading onto individuals the responsibility of getting ahead. As though the dice weren't always loaded for the ones who were lucky enough to start with a boost. My school was great not because the kids and faculty were smart, though they were that. It was great because the connection was honest with no knowledge or information held back, and with the teachers as exposed as the students about their ignorance outside their field. We all learned together and with respect.

As a species, humans have evolved to be able to live in a more varied and variable environment than any other creature, as far as I can tell. Intelligence means adapting to however the environment is transformed. We're nervous now because we're the ones doing all the transforming. Like bacteria let loose in the perfect growth medium, we've fouled our nest. To many of us, this feels like our ultimate comeuppance. 

But the failure is social and political, meaning that the solution depends on language. I don't really buy into notions of individual genius, except, perhaps, within specifically delimited fields of endeavor. Within disciplinary boundaries, a so-called genius might be first, but can't really be a genius unless what is produced is immediately recognized by other sub-geniuses as worthwhile.

I would say that in any endeavor, being first is equal parts luck and effort, with the quality of genius reduced to the ability to notice something interesting. That ability has to be conditioned as much on being outside the limits of the discipline as it is by having mastered the discipline from the inside. 

The trouble with monoculture and the destruction of languages is that there increasingly is no other. And even beyond that, motivated by fear we tend to cower within and behind such things as totemistic flags and religion, which are no longer goads to pride, but are instead the rallying points for a kind of warfare of all against all. The other - all other - has become us, to paraphrase Pogo.

There is a massive difference between the kind of liberty required to intelligently adapt to various natural environments, and the kind which would destroy the natural environment to impose a kind of culturally imperialism on all of the environment, turning the world into a kind of hellish Disneyland.

This is our evolutionary turning point. To survive and thrive as a species now means to become conscious of the boundary between our own intelligent design and nature. That will mean re-inhabiting nature with a kind of consciousness which isn't exclusively deployed to problem-solve the American wilderness. 

This is the root of our terror about artificial intelligence. Somewhere and somehow we each and all know that a brilliant but cosmically amoral (and probably evil) resolution would be to destroy all humans. The remainder, artificially intelligent environment, would be the moral equivalent of a rock.

Now far be it from me to claim that a rock isn't genius. It most certainly is. But it's not alive. 

For one, I am reasonably certain that what we call artificial intelligence can be helpful in guiding humans to evolve. Shockingly implicit in this statement is a transformation to the meaning of evolution. Meaning simply that we don't need to leave consciousness behind in order to evolve naturally. 

Individuals live or die according to genetically endowed ability to mesh, socially and environmentally. A society thrives to the extent that individuals join in to sacrifice their individuality. Changes in language are far more powerful than changes in technology when it comes to ordering society. Our language, at present, fails us. 

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