"Overcoming Babel"

Art isn't about information, it's about communion - interactive artist Raphael Lozano-Hemmer responding to a question, explaining what "he was trying to say" following his IdeaFestival 2013 talk.

Posted at the 3QuarksDaily, Overcoming Babel makes one clear point: all language is interpreted language. Like the failed early 20th century movement known as logical positivism, any language, symbolic or natural, that would purport to remove all ambiguity would soon be unintelligible. That's because, as the piece points out, human understanding also happens in the "negative spaces" amidst the unverifiable and the unsaid.

Reading the essay, I was reminded of an article at Harvard Business Review, which suggested that poets would make great managers because they were (human) systems thinkers. Now of course, there are great many factors that make for a great manager, and among them is the virtue of frequent, clear communication and patience. And to be perfectly honest I'd be lousy at it, mostly because I don't talk enough. Insofar as poets can render the human condition in a way that other people find valuable, they do so knowing that communication must include space for the hearer to fill in the blanks. In poetry, the words merely hint. It's the meter and pause that confirm.

Good luck finding that in today's information churn.

The closest one might come to a perfect, applied logic today is the machine code or assembly language used by your computer. As someone who knows enough about coding to regularly ruin its writing, there is a reason why the lower level languages are on the whole more tedious to render than higher level languages. Machines are stupid. One must be precise to the point of banality. We humans are lossy. What we lack in precision we make up for in understanding. We know the things that we know.

So why is this important for the IdeaFestival?

There are two broad ways to reach beneficial truths. One is through direct, unmediated contact with nature through scientific method. While analogies, metaphors and similes are of interest to scientists because they inform the choice of experiment, the truths as revealed by science are the same for everyone. Newtonian mechanics as described by calculus, for example, can guide human-made metals through the solar system with perfect timing. In fact one such vessel, Dawn, will soon be the first human craft to orbit two solar bodies. Thirty-five years into a sluicing languor, Voyager still talks to its creators. We can rely on the applied sciences to be the same time after time.

Then there are things that cannot be understood except by metaphor. Questions of meaning are answerable by comparing this thing to that. Talking about how the economy had changed - and boy, has it - Tyler Cowen advised those in the audience last October to cultivate some technical knowledge and to put those humanities degrees to use. Hearing it, I thought the advice couldn't have been better. If software is hollowing out the traditional job market by automating so many tasks, our competitive advantage isn't one of efficiency, but of asking better questions.

As described by "Overcoming Babel," Enlightenment-era attempts to formulate the perfectly descriptive language were charming because they were so innocent. Today, we need not look further than our own phones to understand how fruitless that desire is. They can direct us to nearest Yelp-approved Thai restaurant, summon Uber and clear our Google calendars for a romantic dinner. But what will they make, then, of hands reaching across the table?

What will they do with that intimate silence?

Stay curious.


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