Is it the end of language as the digital reimagines what it takes to be human?
In the times of the current global epidemic, a rather strange English book comes to one’s mind. The Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published exactly four centuries ago, in 1620, was written by Sir Thomas Browne. Not about any epidemic affecting the body, it was all about follies in one’s thought, affecting the mind. That was an era when most of the ‘old thought’, the orthodoxia, was being questioned and ideas that formed the foundation of civilisation were being revisited. Francis Bacon, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton and many others posed new questions and re-arranged the existing stock of knowledge in order to position ideas within a rational framework. In the process, they gave birth to what is known as the ‘Age of Reason’ extending over two centuries—the 17th and the 18th—and collectively produced what historians of civilisation call ‘the Enlightenment.’ An interesting product of the Enlightenment was Robert Burton’s monumental work The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which pointed to any excess of Imagination in a person’s mind as the source of insanity leading to evil thoughts and acts.
It is now close to two centuries since Reason was vehemently rejected as a way to reaching Truth and the Enlightenment as the harbinger of Justice. Exactly two centuries after Burton’s Anatomy was published, William Blake completed his prophetic long poem Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion (1820), celebrating Imagination as the natural twin of Truth. The multi-layered debates of philosophers, scientists and poets and the clashes or conversations between their ideas were one historical manifestation of the nebulous expression ‘the human pursuit’. That these debates and churning of ideas happened in England and other European nations is by no means to be seen as a unique phenomenon. It is just that this particular example can illustrate the point with clarity.
In all civilisations and in many historical periods, such debates have taken place. It may not be wrong to say that every Charvak and Buddha has had his advaitin philosophical adversaries and every Archimedes and Pythagoras has had his adversary alchemists. Whether ancient, medieval or modern, societies all over the world have been tacitly guided and led forward by ‘the pursuit.’ But, what is that pursuit? At first glance, it may seem that it is all about going out, going beyond, extending one’s material and physical control over Nature. It may seem that satisfying man’s deep-seated desire for greater control, triumphs and glory is the driving spirit behind this pursuit. However, a more careful engagement with human history may reveal that it is not just about the human conquest of nature or about successful epical voyages or any physical conquest of tall mountain peaks and great depths of oceans. It is something of a far greater significance. At the risk of over-simplifying, let me describe it as ‘the desire to journey from substance to its shadow, or an attempt at reconciling a given material substance and its shadow.’ It all began in the most ancient times and tracing its advent through millennia can be quite fascinating.
A synoptic view of man’s arrival at the point in evolution where the Homo Sapiens have arrived can be presented as follows. An event, none of which has either been seen or known or whose scale and manner can be grasped by using the laws of Physics so far known to us, is imagined to have taken place some 14 billion human years ago. Our solar system appears to have acquired its rhythm and balanced structure probably 6 billion years back. The Earth itself settled down to its shape around 4.5 billion years ago. Emergence of life in its most rudimentary form and its gradual evolution, too, took nearly 2 billion years; and within this mind-boggling timeframe, the kind of Sapiens that humans are arrived not much before two million years back; and the ‘modern humans’ have a history barely of 200,000. It should not take one long to see that, in the context of cosmic history, the species described as ‘Modern Man’—not to be confused with Modernism or Modernity in recent centuries—is an extremely new and, therefore, fragile part of the advent of biological evolution. The fragility becomes clearer when we consider that even within this very short history, this new species developed the ability to speak, form languages and exchange thought through symbolic linguistic icons and form ‘thought communities’ just about 70,000 years ago. All of what the Sapiens attempted to do in order to situate themselves in the world—the earth and the extra-terrestrial cosmic phenomena—since then formed the foundation of ‘the human pursuit’. It has its purpose as well as direction, though determined very long time back in prehistorical ages.
The acquisition of language was at once the discovery of an immense freedom as well as a grievous loss of the autonomy of the human animal. One does not know precisely how long it took for our distant ancestors for the making of language and developing the ability to produce meaningful verbal signs. But, it is possible to imagine that the time taken must be of tens of millennia. The medium used for shaping the verbal signs—just thin air, materially quite intangible—was not easy to handle, mould and regulate. In the initial fifty or sixty millennia spent after this ‘pursuit,’ man accomplished the difficult art of learning to speak, to coin and circulate literally thousands of verbal forms and evolved complex languages. Completing this epic journey was, however, only a part of the pursuit. There was yet another and far more complicated challenge before our ancestors of seventy millennia before our time. That lay hidden deep within the body. Humans had to train their constantly evolving brain to learn how to absorb the verbal signs, to store them in memory, to develop the fascinating art of interpreting them and making sense out of them. Training the vast number of neurons, some 85 billion of them, in the art of recognition, interpretation and instant recall of the verbal impressions was, no doubt, simply unprecedented in the entire cosmic history. When accomplished, the human brain had become fully recursive.
Training the vast number of neurons, some 85 billion of them, in the art of recognition, interpretation and instant recall of the verbal impressions was, no doubt, simply unprecedented in the entire cosmic history. When accomplished, the human brain had become fully recursive
A word about the recursive brain may be in order here. Having a brain as an organ in the body is not unique to the Homo Sapiens. Many other insects, animals, fish and birds too have brains as an essential component of their anatomical structures. And, having brains, their movements, reflexes and responses do get regulated by the brain.
However, the human brain, which does all that is necessary for regulating movements, reflexes and responses, also performs, in addition, a task that the brains of almost no other animal species can. And that is, in addition to thinking, the human brain can think about thought. Language makes it possible for us to articulate our thoughts, also our thoughts about thinking. We are able to make a fairly good guess about the thoughts passing through the brain of a fellow human, even when those thoughts are not articulated. It is a tremendous achievement of the Homo Sapiens that they could bring their naturally given brain to becoming a recursive brain.
However, it is the recursive quality of the brain functioning that brought the individual members of the early prehistoric hoards of ‘Modern Man’ into becoming ‘inter-subjective communities’. The linguistic equipment acquired by humans represented the shared space of subjectivity; and the recursive brain provided the neurological space for constructing the subjectivity as a ‘perspective for formulating the image of reality surrounding us’. In other words, whatever be the nature of the world outside one’s consciousness, it is the semantic abilities of a given language that started mediating between that ‘external’ and its perception, its image formed within our cognition. Thus there was the World; and then there was the Word, within the confines of which alone the worldview had to be formed.
It is difficult to say if humans had a good sense of the slip between the ‘world as it is’ in substance and material, and the ‘world as grasped’, a mere semantic shadow of the ‘real’ out there. There is no tangible evidence to establish that our early-historical ancestors had articulated the unease arising out of their perception of the slip between the two. However, the possibility cannot be denied, for we have an extremely loud and clear articulation of the bewilderment caused in the earliest linguistic, literary and philosophical texts known to us. One cannot overlook the fact that an inquiry into the relationship between substance and its shadow forms the core of the cultural expression in ancient Egypt, Greece and India. By now, the world knows how important a role the understanding of shadows played in the construction of Pyramids. And not just now, but nearly two thousand years after ancient Egyptians built these wonders, Thales of Miletus, six centuries before Christ, accurately guessed that if he could measure the shadow of a staff held in place, he could figure out the precise height of the Pyramid of Giza. His theory—the proportion of a thing and its shadow, identically the same for all objects and their shadow, if all are measured at the same fixed time—may appear too simple to us, but could have emerged that long time back only out of an obsessive interest in the relationship between objects and their shadows. Despite the self-assuredness of the ancient Greek trigonometry, Plato, about two-and -a-half centuries later, could not be so sure if the relationship between the ‘beings’ and their ‘shadows’ could be stated in such a straightforward manner. In the section devoted to the discussion of knowledge and ignorance in Republic he queries, ‘But did not we say that if we could find anything which seemed to be and not to be, that would be the thing to lie in-between what purely Is and what altogether Is Not? Neither knowledge nor ignorance would have this as its domain.’ Thus, neither the substance nor shadow can be a ‘pure Is-ness’ , unless the shadow can be entirely dissociated from the substance and the vice versa. Plato’s description of the cave man, arriving at the mouth of the cave to see that his shadow had fallen inside, is the quintessential statement of all of the ancient Greek sciences, literature and philosophy. After Plato, despite several epistemic shifts in various fields of knowledge, the perplexing relation and association between substance and its shadow have been the central preoccupation for Western knowledge traditions. Without overlooking the numerous breakthroughs in sciences and philosophy in that vast and complex tradition, I am tempted to point out that at the beginning of the twentieth century, even the Irish poet WB Yeats was trying to unravel the puzzle. In his celebrated poem on Byzantium, he wrote, ‘Before me floats an image, man or shade, Shade more than man, more image than a shade; .. I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.’
Was this continued philosophical preoccupation unique to the Greek, Roman and European thought? By no means so. It abounds in Indian philosophy and literature even more obsessively. The Vedic verses turn again and again to Surya, ‘the giver of life and the assailer of shadows.’ ‘Isha’, primarily light, was seen by the Vedic and the Upanishidic thinkers as ‘that which pervades everything’. The Isha-Vasya Upanishad—the one that Mahatma Gandhi hailed as the essence of all ancient wisdom—declares in its very opening line—isha vasyam idam sarvam—the ‘pure’ (light) pervades all and there is not ‘any’ that it does not pervade. Its most superlative description of Truth is ‘hiran mayena patrena satyasya phhitam mukham’, ‘The face of Truth is covered with a golden disc’; the ‘pure’ being is possible only in the shadowless space such as the face of the sun disk. Lest I may drift into discussion of Metaphysics, I turn to the paradoxical dialectic between thing and its shadow, between Object and its Image, or, one may not be wrong in saying, Shadow and its Object. Which of the two is prior, and which subsequent, is, in terms of Philosophy, very difficult to say.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a 19th century English poet, in his enigmatic autobiography, the Biographia Literaria, mentions that in his father’s home, there was a certain painting of which the child Samuel was very fond. The painting depicted a violently stormy sea, tossing waves and a ship helplessly floating on it. He mentions that despite the frightening turbulence, the ‘painting’ was all very still. The still image reflecting a highly dynamic set of objects remained etched in his consciousness. It returns several times in his poems, most famously in The Ancient Mariner, in lines such as ‘All alone, all all alone’ describing a ship coming to a standstill in the middle of vast seas. Coleridge, it is believed, wrote most of his poems under the spell of opium, in a mental state of hallucination where objects suddenly start floating free of their object-references and become mere images.
Memory chips have already started regulating the life of most people in the world; and instead of linguistic communities and affinity-based society, myriad networks are arising, making humans networked and a ‘wired’ animal
Without returning to Gottfried Leibniz, mentioned earlier and the one thinker who was responsible for stabilising the method of breaking large chunks of collective memory into strings of ‘zeroes’ and ‘ones’—a method that is pivotal for constructing computer machines—let me add that from the end of the nineteenth century, Image, rather than Object, came to be the main occupation of most sciences. Images captured in pin-holed boxes soon allowed the makers of those images to print them out, shuffle them around, free them from the confines of physical time and physical space, and get them strung together into a moving train of shadows and create an entirely unprecedented genre of narrative. The moving image, in short ‘movie’, or in most Indian languages the ‘chalat-chitr’, the walking imagery, opened before the world for the first time the tantalising possibility of completely separating Objects from Images, shadow from its substance. A philosophical problem that had bothered the thinkers for nearly two-and-a-half millennia was cracked by this new technology. During the last fifty years, the moving imagery has attained a pitch and a scale that can soon turn Homo Sapiens into a completely different species. This possibility, unfolding before our eyes, was spurred by two independent phenomena. The first of these is the development of artificial memory, artificial sensibility and artificial intelligence. The second is the development of digit as a vehicle of semantic content and development of efficient digital gadgetry. All of these together are propelling the species towards becoming what social scientists describe as ‘Cyborg’, mostly a gadget and AI, and to some extent, a human of natural origin. Are we already there? Not quite; but the day is not far when we will have turned the evolutionary corner. In preparation of that new existence, the human brain is, as scientists working in Cognitive Sciences tell us, already showing clear symptoms of fatigue for verbal signs and an irresistible fondness for visual images. Language, which has been the foundation of a community’s inter-subjectivity, appears to be on its way out of man’s evolutionary journey. Almost two-thirds of the existing 6,000 languages in the world are estimated to be extinct in the next fifty years. Memory chips have already started regulating the life of most people in the world; and instead of linguistic communities and affinity-based society, myriad networks are arising, making humans a ‘networked’ and a ‘wired’ animal.
At the turn of the century, Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive scientist working towards understanding why children no more want to write or speak, found that the human brain now responds to language quite differently than it previously used to do. The entire activity of analysis of linguistic signals takes place in the Broca’s area in the left part of the brain. Wolf noticed that the Broca’s area is now experiencing a greater fatigue in carrying out the linguistic activity. One does not need to go to a laboratory to see this result. We are all surrounded by people who no longer like to read; and writing is a far cry. We are all deep inside forests of free-floating imagery, through which one can surf at will, mixing the present, the past and the future—something that natural languages will not allow. We are now turned into digital addresses, digital identities, digital beings without the slightest of a shadow, kind of ‘pure beings’ who can exist outside physical space and physical time. In our time, the digital is more real than anything that is non-digital, the shadow superior to its objects, image more powerful than its originator.
Long back in history, some seventy thousand years ago, humans freed themselves from the fear of the unknown and the undecipherable in Nature, by learning to name things. The method developed for doing this was language. Language made it possible for humans to put together and to articulate thought. That, in turn, brought for humans many subsequent forms of freedom. In the process of evolution, we have come to a decisive turning point which has opened before us yet another and far more fascinating vista of freedom, the freedom from physical Space and chronological Time. It is just that the turning point makes the journey forward irreversible. And, as we take the next step forward, which we shall in near future, our freedom to be human may get forgotten and lost altogether.
The perpetual surfers in the Cyberspace and Cyber-time, the ‘Cyborgs’, sustained by artificial memory and artificial intelligence, may rarely be able to experience what in the past it meant to be human. Can one naïvely ever-after hope that they will be?