[-empyre-] Poetry and Programming (2): Computers are Language Machines

"The computer is a language machine. ...Turing simply defined the computer as a machine that
could be any machine. It could be this because it was programmable - as such, operating
symbolically upon symbolic things. This universe of symbolic forms includes the computer itself,
and the recursive aspect of the medium is what leads to its real technological and therefore
social power. To paraphrase Turing, the computer is the medium that can be any medium."
Simon Biggs

"A poem is a machine made out of words."
William Carlos Williams


Computers are language machines. Some say they're math machines: they're computers, they
compute. But they simply carry out instructions encoded in machine language even when they do
math. They don't so much multiply or add, divide, etc numbers as they shift bits around
according to instructions encoded in language. The gears of the machine are made of language.
Language gears. Language widgets. Langwidgets. Their operation is entirely predicated on our
understanding of the formal properties of language that support near flawlessly repeatable
parsing, tokenization, interpretation, compilation, and execution.

Digital architectures and languages, and the visions presented onscreen—-which are one of the
wonders of the current age, surely—-represent a synthesis of Mathematics and Linguistics, as
well as other fields of human endevour. The digital has a way of speeding introduction between
ideas, ideas and people, people and people, markets, etc. The mathematics of Computer Science
now drives Mathematics in the way that the mathematics of Physics used to. The study of the
formal mathematical properties of language and algorithms expressed in various types of
languages drives Computer Science at its foundations, which are mathematical and linguistic.

Language has come into new relation with Mathematics. And this is a strange edge of art in the
contemporary world. It is this uneasy mix between math and natural language that is making other
changes in what it means to be literate. For instance, we see how language, image, sound, video
and other digitizable media are, in various ways, 'converging'. This is fundamentally because
they are all capable of representation in language, ie, they are digitizable. If it's
digitizable, it's converging with other digitizable media. In a sense, the 'convergence'
happened forty or sixty years ago, when we realized that text, image, sound, etc could all be
represented in language.

But we are used to certain divisions in media, even in electronic media, never mind the division
between print and sound, for instance. Just because we have multimedia software does not mean
that we have great multimedia work because the adaptation to technology lags behind the
technology by fifty years sometimes. This is because some technologies require more than
intellectual adaptation but almost a biological adaptation, ie, to make these technological
extensions part of the mind and/or body or sensorium requires adjustment of what McLuhan called
"the sense ratios" which refer to the relations between the senses during the act of 'reading'
and the focus or weight each receives. In other words the notion of "the sense ratios" is not
like a set of 'volume' sliders for each sense, but has also to do with the algorithms we use to
'read' multi-sensorial information. When we 'read' multimedia, we are listening and interacting,
reading, replaying/re'reading', thinking, etc, ie, we are 'reading' various media simultaneously
or in turn, and driving the thing interactively, often.

But we have some experience with this type of reading since it's more or less what we do to
drive a computer in the first place, never mind the experience of net.art. The applications we
use all the time are subtlely involved in multimedia--usually in the construction of an
interface that does not require manuals but uses language, image, animation, sound, video, and
the common contemporary language of menu and icon design to represent and explain the interface.
This is a sort of literacy that is in front of our noses: how to read the interface of a
computer application, how to work it, get it to do what we want. If you know an email menu, you
know much about the menus in other programs. Copy and paste is the same across applications. And
so on. Or if you work with Word, you won't be too at sea in SoundForge. The menus are quite
similar, and the concept of editing, which involves selecting and then applying the filter, are
strongly related. A word processor, an image processor, a sound processor, a video
processor...they all share many properties and methods.

But 'underneath' the convergence of text, image, sound, video, and computer application,
underneath this 'computer literacy' is the convergence--or new intense relation--between
mathematics and language. It isn't so much a 'crisis of representation' as a 'transformation in
representation'. And an introduction of dynamic behavior into digital representations of objects
that previously may have been primarily static. And then the explosive fantasmagoria of newly
created things, created among all the permutations of all that is digitizable, precisely
copiable/reinscribable and distributed en masse around the network, *x*...information overload,
certainly, but also the meeting place of anything digitizable x or y.

Computers are language machines. The spirit of poetry, intense engagement with language, can
both stay at home and venture out in spirit into new relation with arts, media, and programming.


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