Iteration #2: the weirdness of pre-loved words

1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics Photograph by Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique Solvay, Belgium. Einstein is 1st from left in front row. Niels Bohr is middle row, 1st from right. Einstein and Bohr spent many years debating the nature of reality and the meaning of quantum physics.

"Initiating second iteration," says Professor A to post-grad student B.

"Yes, Professor, I understand," replies B, tapping furiously at the keyboard of zir netbook.

In their respective isolation chambers, strapped into their respective virtual reality simulators, Jacques and Jillian hear none of the dialogue between A and B in the control room with its one-way viewscreen and banks of twinkling instrument panels.

On activation of the iteration sequence, the R-Sim (reality simulator) begins streaming data to the various receptors attached to Jillian and Jacques, and to the receptors installed in the control room.

"Now we get to the pointy end of the experiment," says the Professor. "The R-Sim is now transmitting multi-modal data including static visual---text-based as well as image or glyph-based--- dynamic visual, auditory, olfactory and kinaesthetic."

"That's Albert Einstein, isn't it, in the front row," says B, pointing to an old photograph appearing on one of the monitors.

"Yes, taken at the Solvay conference in 1927," replies the Professor, "The image is just one small part of the data streamed to the subjects. When the R-Sim completes the streaming phase, the subjects will be instructed to select one word and one word only, that best describes the data each has received."

The subject known as Jacques is first to respond to the instructions. Speaking aloud, slowly and carefully for the speech recognition software, he utters the French word, "intelligence."

Shortly thereafter, the subject known as Jillian provides the same response, "intelligence", but pronounced in a weak but discernible North-London accent.

"Now the R-Sim will translate the inputs from each subject into the language of the other and then transmit the translation to each subject," explains the Professor. "The subjects may or may not respond to the response of the other to the translation."

Speaking in French, Jacques utters words which the R-Sim translates into English and then transmits to Jillian as, "great minds think alike". In similar vein, the R-Sim transmits the French translation of Jillian's response, "takes one to know one".

"Are they talking about themselves," wonders B, "or about the giant brains attending the Solvay conference?"

"Themselves," replies the Professor stonily.

B visualises the Professor wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "irony free zone".

Professor A presses on unheedingly. "Now, the R-Sim will transmit a dataset congruent with the initial set," says the Professor, "The aim is to identify meaning-slippages, and to assess the subjects' capacity to deal with ambiguity and resolve 'fuzzy logic' in the stochastic sense, one might be tempted to say."

On one of the control room monitors plays footage of what a corporate cocktail party: a gathering of about twenty or so well-suited people, some clustered in groups, others standing silent and solitary.

One person stands out among the crowd: a youngish woman with a 200 watt smile who moves from group to group, contributing to the conversation before moving on. Nor does she bypass the solitary wallflowers on the periphery. She spends time with everyone, igniting smiles and animated conversation in her wake.

The iteration continues in the normal way.

The word selected by Jillian to describe the cocktail party dataset is, "intelligence".

In contrast, Jacques response is a word which the R-Sim translates into English as "networking".

"Why am I not surprised," asks the Professor with a note of surprise in his voice.

"What do you mean, Professor?"

"Well, Jillian's response seems to shift the boundaries of the core meaning of the word, 'intelligence'."

"But isn't she referring to the Daniel Goleman concept of emotional intelligence," asks B. "the woman at the cocktail party is demonstrating emotional intelligence in the way that she responds to the needs of her guests."

Not being familiar with the work of Goleman, the Professor changes the direction of the conversation.

"As you young people say," says the Professor, "Whatever! So moving right along, let's watch now how our subjects respond to each other's interpretation of the data."

Once the R-Sim has done its translation and transmission work, the subjects talk with each other via the R-Sim about the meaning of the dataset, and about their responses to it.

"How can you describe a cocktail party as intelligent?" Jacques wants to know of Jillian.

"It's not the party that's intelligent," responds Jillian, "don't put words into my mouth. It's the actions of the hostess that demonstrate intelligence in the Daniel Goleman sense of the word."

"But that's illogical," says Jacques. "You are using an existing word in a new way to describe something the word normally doesn't describe. I think you should invent a new word, rather than contaminate an existing word with new and slippery meanings."

"Language grows and changes, just like people do," says Jillian. "It's survival of the fittest. Natural selection. Evolutionary linguistics, you might say."

In the control room, the Professor and B monitor the dialogue between the subjects with interest.

"I agree with Jillian," says B to the Professor. "Isn't it all about usage? I mean if enough people use a word in a new and different way over a sufficiently long period of time, doesn't the new sense of the word become the true meaning, or part of the true meaning anyway? As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"New sense? Nuisance! Nonsense! Quoting from a work of fiction is not good support for a tired and illogical argument." snaps the Professor. "There is no true meaning; every language statement is a metaphor that has no direct attachment to bedrock reality, whatever that is..."

"With all due respect Professor," says B, "if there's no true meaning, then isn't it perfectly normal for a language to develop, for the meaning of words to evolve and change over time?"

"Possibly," growls the Professor, "but it's damned inconvenient to keep track of slip-sliding semantics and meanings that don't stand still long enough to make any sense."

"But surely no less inconvenient," suggests B, "than having to invent a new word every time there is a meaning slippage?"

"But is that really the point of why we are here today?" asks the Professor. "Next thing you'll be throwing Myers Briggs at me, or Maslow, or, worst case scenario, Derrida and his deconstructionist colleagues."

To be continued...


Tom & Icy said...

Oh, I always wondered how those gizmos worked, I mean them things they wear on Star Trek so they can talk to all those people from different planets. But there was one episode where the thing goofed up because of "meaning slippage" as you put it. Some suggest that music is the universal language. I guess the main objective is to communicate thoughts and feelings from one head to others. Oh, and I compose and arrange my own music with a computer program.

masterymistery said...

Music as a universal language, that's a great idea, on many different levels. Thanks for your comments, Tom.

masterymistery said...

Do you use Audacity, Tom, as a music application?

Nessa said...

We can't seem to communicate when we speak the same language. I'm pretty sure we'd screw up with "aliens."

Silly Haiku

masterymistery said...

Hi Nessa, screwing up with aliens is what we do best. Yes, given the track record of culture contacts on Earth leading to genocide, I doubt aliens would put up with our crap. Thanks for stopping by.