October 16, 2002

The Truism of the Restricted-Purpose Language

I have to disagree strongly with the idea that the best example for "The Fallacy of the Almost-General-Purpose Computer" is "The Fallacy of the Almost-General-Purpose Language" In fact, I'd say this example undercuts the point, and actually strongly argues the reverse.

I think we get too wrapped-up in the idea of "impossible", along the lines of the idea that Newspeak was to make it impossible to speak frankly about politics. Yes, right, nothing will ever make it "impossible". But my own experiences with Libertarianism thoroughly convince me that it's certainly common to have a political language that makes it very difficult to express certain thoughts. I can't remember how many times a Libertarian has told me that a concept is invalid, because the English sense of the word used to describe the concept doesn't have that sense in the specialized argot of Libertarianism. As in, for example "censorship means ...". The problem is that the word "censorship" has several different meanings in English, but only a single meaning in Liberspeak ("by the government"). Thus in so many conversations, it's a massive chore to convince the Libertarian that just because their definition is restrictive, doesn't make the concept invalid _per se_. And the Libertarian is likely to endlessly repeat some variant of the idea that because the word in Liberspeak has only a specific Libermeaning, other concepts are invalid. It's not utterly and completely beyond human achievement to explain the differences between Liberspeak and English. But wow, it's an amazingly difficult task, and requires a great deal of analytic and writing skill. It's the best example I've ever seen of how Newspeak would actually function in action.

There's a computer-language version of this too. After all, what's the whole point of the Software-As-Speech argument? Programming languages are designed to make it easy to express certain abstract concepts, where English or other languages don't work well. It's not impossible to express the concept in those same languages, but it is much harder and more error-prone. And then it follows that other concepts may be more difficult to express in the programming language. I remember a parody song, where the punchline was "We're a string-processing in FORTRAN shop". Why is that considered hilarious? Because FORTRAN, as a language is so ill-suited for string-processing as to make doing it typically so difficult as to be a joke. Now, it's not impossible to do string-processing in FORTRAN - but it is certainly cumbersome and hard.

So in the abstract, what Hollywood wants might be impossible. But I'm starting to think the focus on the impossibility is leading to ignoring a much more frightening practicality.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight , infothought | on October 16, 2002 06:29 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups

Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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