Learn from Wittgenstein Why It’s So Hard to Communicate Online

Hello, Ludwig!

You cannot separate language from technology in the digital age. It’s impossible (or fruitless) to do so. Digital technology is comprised of computational languages or software AND our very own human languages are being given a volume and reach unprecedented in human history. For more on how these two kinds of language–computational and human–collide today, check out this piece on Slate by David Auerbach. Think about how you might share this with students and teachers, perhaps with questions like: What is happening to our language in the digital age? Are social media enhancing or inhibiting the way we use language to communicate?

These are some of the clips that jumped out at me:

Artificial intelligence was quite slow at learning this lesson. Well into the 1970s, it was still assumed that computers could understand natural language in more or less the same way that they could understand formal logic: by interpreting them as propositions that were either true or false. The efforts in this direction have, on the whole, been remarkably unsuccessful.

And these difficulties are exactly why Google succeeded—by ignoring semantics as much as possible, sticking instead to whatever it could glean without trying to understand the meaning of words or sentences. Google could count the popularity of a word, see which words co-occur with others, figure out which people where use which words—anything as long as it didn’t require determining where and how one should use a word. In very limited, circumscribed situations, like asking questions of certain specified forms, computers can figure out what you mean, and even then things are very limited. Google can answer, “How many ounces in a pound?” but still can’t tell me “How many years has Obama been in office?” Picking up on “Obama” and “years” and “in office,” Google returns some data about his 2012 re-election, but that’s as far as it gets in “understanding” my question. The problem, as summed up by Wittgenstein: “Understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Wittgenstein’s philosophy also accounts for the disastrous state of Internet discourse today. The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self—especially on Twitter.

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