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Jaron Lanier

without using resources. They’re a trip, referring to the things you can’t do. Post-symbolic communication amounts to a spontaneous way to create a sensual world between people without requiring interpretive symbols – it’s sort of like cutting out the middle-man where you actually make stuff instead of just referring to it.

There are a lot of non-verbal, partially non-symbolic attempts to bridge this tragic interpersonal gap we’ve been stuck with, too. Like you can make paintings, you can do architecture, but none of them quite get there. They all approach it from one direction or another. Architecture’s a little like post-sym but it’s way too slow. Paintings can be like that, but they’re not really interactive and from a sensory-motor point of view they’re not real, not what your body treats as reality. Fantasies are solitary. Movies are kind of like that but they’re not inclusive of the perceiver. Music improvisation comes close, but it’s all form, no content.

Each of the ways we’ve approached this problem in the past hits some kind of big, monstrous disqualification but so far as I can tell Virtual Reality just goes right on through and does it. So to talk about what will this communication be like, it’s really hard to imagine…

David: Well, if we were conducting this interview right now in some kind of post-symbolic world, how would we be doing it?

Jaron: Well, the first thing to say is that the types of things you’d communicate and your whole world view would start to shift, and I think this would be in a very wonderful way. There are some things that we say that you’d only say in a symbolic context, like puns.

Let me also just clarify that language isn’t going to disappear. There’s actually a part of our cortex that’s specialized to it, that’s how committed we’ve become to it. This is going to become a new, wonderful adventure that grows up alongside the adventure of language, increasing our sensitivity to language.

I know that abstraction doesn’t need to exist for communication, which is something that some linguists don’t believe. For instance, if you need to refer to a quality, you don’t need qualities in Virtual Reality to communicate, because you can have every single thing that’s perceived alike in some way in some giant planet that you can carry around. I mean why not? Instead of saying something’s red, just put everything that’s red in a planet and let someone look at it and perceive for themselves what these things have in common. So that’s an example of how the whole idea of communication changes.

David: So it’ll get more specific then?

Jaron: No. In language we have a notion of a quality like redness or pudginess or something. In post-symbolic communication, why bother with those things because there’s no limitation. I can bring a jar and inside it is big as a planet and has everything that I think is pudgy in it and then the concept of pudgy becomes unneeded because you can look at them all at once and get what’s alike about them experientially.

Rebecca: You’ve mentioned only sensual communication which is only one aspect of human reality. How would it be possible to express feelingse.g.. love, hate, greed, indignation, ecstasy etc…. in Virtual Reality, without some kind of symbolic language?

Jaron: When we use symbols, like words, alone to refer to our internal states, we are kidding ourselves. But the capacity of symbols to smooth over differences has probably been vital as a social lubricant and our survival thus far might have depended on it. Without our blanket of little white lies we might have killed each other off. The capacity of symbols to communicate a little bit of truth mixed in with a lot of illusion is remarkable.

There is a critical non-symbolic component to intimate communication, though. This stuff will flower in a post-symbolic context. The stuff I mean is exactly what’s absent in an email-only romance.

If you’re talking about communicating internal states, then the poetry of gesture spiced with a little experiential metaphor might be the truest expression. A metaphor is different from a symbol because the choice of a symbol is arbitrary; it is only a pointer.

Post-symbolic communication is the ultimate playground for metaphor. You might experientially meld the moment’s activities with childhood memories and mythical events.

If, on the other hand, what you’re talking about is the categorization of human behavior, then a planet/jar can hold the truth behind the category.

What’s left between these two? The characterization of people in their essence is a dangerous business, and the difficulty of doing this in post-sym is actually, I think, evidence of its value.

Rebecca: How could definitions be agreed upon unless the person already knew me? Someone else might see my planet of beautiful things as ugly. How do I get my concept of beauty across?

Jaron: Just like you do in language, through ongoing experience and feedback. You each add things to the planet, and if there is coherence, you have reached each other to a far greater degree than you could with the use of words. The difference, really, is that words let you keep the illusion of commonality longer when it is not present. Anyway, beauty’s just a judgment. That’s less important than finding that you groove on the same jar with someone, or with everyone. Once you’re used to post-sym, the judgment that the jar means `beautiful’ fades away as a symbolic hold-over. You see, what I’m getting at is that symbols require a sort of characterization and judgment of things that might turn out to be happily expendable.

Rebecca: I’m still grappling with this. You talked of expressing pudginess, but what about boredom or surprise etc…? if I listed all the things that surprised me to express that I had been taken by surprise, for example, not only would it take forever, but the person I was communicating with would be dumbfounded as to what I was trying to get across.

Jaron: How do you teach a kid the meaning of the word `surprise’ in the first place? Symbols are actually not primary, though they do take off on their own and stake out a territory in which they seem to be indispensable. But what is hardest to understand is what fluency would be like in post-sym. It might take a long time to express that moment that you’d now simplify into `surprise’, but it might be worth it, a kind of gourmet communication. Or the post-symmers might become so fluent that they’ll do it fast. I don’t know.

Rebecca: Isn’t it more likely that there would be some kind of compromise between post-symbolism and language where some kind of symbolism is used when things fail?

Jaron: Ha! It is more likely that you’d have to resort to some VR when words fail, which they often do. But truly, I think that the relationship between symbols and post-sym in the long term future will be a little like the relationship between language and music now. You have language-free music, you have music-free language, and then you have all the gradations between, like the various kinds of song, from senseless Irish `mouth music’, which uses words without meaning, to rap, which supplants melody with prose. So sure, there’ll be marvelous shades of gray, but the pure stuff is the most intriguing to contemplate from this distant moment.

Rebecca: So you’re saying that you won’t need descriptions of the world because you would be experiencing things spontaneously?

Jaron: Let me give you a couple of examples that can help demonstrate this. The simplest example is when you travel to a foreign country and don’t speak a word of the language and still get by. You get by through projecting emotion and miming and all kinds of things. This is the same thing, the only difference is that in that case you can’t do very much. You can point to a banana but you can’t suddenly create whole worlds. But that’s the basic idea, except that you could make the world into anything at any time, with spontaneity, if not spontaneously.

David: When you’re in a pre-symbolic stage of development and you experience something, some overwhelming burst of color and pattern, and then someone lays a symbol on it, all of a sudden it condenses all that down. Are you saying that post-symbolic communication can unravel that?

Jaron: I’m not proposing that the purpose of post-symbolic communication is to experience the world as undivided sensation, where everything is completely non-contextual and meaningless. Things would have context and there would be clarity of reference and clarity of intent but it would be created through the direct interaction between people rather than through an abstraction held separately from them.

David: It may not be an English language abstraction but it would still be a mathematical code abstraction.

Jaron: No it’s not. Let me give you another example. This is subtle stuff and if you want to cause a stampede among linguists this is the stuff to bring up. (laughter) I want to stress; I’m not making any judgment against language at all, it’s just that mankind needs big, long-scale adventures.

It’s kind of like if you have kids locked up in a house, they’re going to need something to do – so on this planet we need something to do. That’s the justification for it, and it’s the only one that makes any sense.

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