- Private language
- Warm little ponds
- Is PUBLIC language possible
A year into active twitter consumption, I’m still asking myself if it makes me smarter or dumber. And in the aftermath of jan 6, I’ve been thinking about how social media can create so much enthusiasm for such a bad idea, based on such evidently false beliefs, and with so little to gain by the bag holders.
I came to twitter for the news but I stayed for a novel mix of information and nonsense: beliefs, emotions, subtle allusions, miniature art, fast-evolving microgenres that echo through cliques and time zones and linger past their freshness. It’s like the invisible river in mushishi; I’m blinding myself but can’t look away.
Staring into the blinding river of light that keeps me online, comparing it to the compelling and ultimately deceptive identity politics that drove people through barriers and up steps, I arrived, via a saga-length yelp review of a thought process, at Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher of language.
I’m leery here of epistemic trespassing. Before 2020 the only philosopher I cared about who wasn’t also a poet was Daniel Dennett, the hard problem of consciousness guy, but I had him confused with David Chalmers. But when the BLM protests started I saw people using political philosophy concepts like the social contract and the state’s monopoly on violence to make sense of current events.
This post is that; if at the end of it you feel unenlightened, I apologize, but the goal isn’t to clarify your thinking, it’s to clarify mine. This is me trying to make sense of what’s happening; this is me using the shape of someone else’s thoughts as a template for my own.
From Wittgenstein I borrow two concepts:
- Private language, his youthful project on what kinds of thought would produce a language that cannot in principle be understood by outsiders
- Language-games, his late-in-life idea about how meaning is constructed through collaborative iteration
I butcher both, for which I make no apologies. Like a good jesuit, I take what I need.
For Wittgenstein, a private language is a language that is not only secret, but is incomprehensible to non-speakers. He’s not talking about the last speaker of Bo, he’s talking about a language that cannot be translated even with adequate interest and resources.
I’m not sure anything I’ve seen online is untranslatable, but the weirder stuff is a mix of distasteful images, nonsense prophecy and novel slang that I can’t keep up with. It’s not untranslatable in principle; call it red queen untranslatable, antibiotic resistance untranslatable. It’s evolving faster than the other system can keep up. (In this case, the other system is me).
Wittgentsein concludes this untranslatability requirement is unachievable. I discard his conclusion, but keep the steps he takes in his proof. They mirror, or can be teased into mirroring, the things that are being done to language online.
The role of doubt
In theory a language of tautological statements, of S → S, is untranslatable, a perfectly private language. This is why 1-time pads are good encryption. Wittgenstein worked around this by saying that statements which have (in a logical sense) no possibility of doubt have no meaning and aren’t a language.
(“If people reach perfection they vanish, you know”, comments TH White on this topic).
He avoided treating the reality of physical objects as absolute truth, reasoning that the interesting parts of language come from uncertainty; that meaning is what you convey in the presence of doubt. Also even pointing directly at a physical object can lead to ambiguous vocab. Per another pop science darling, Who is this fool who does not know what a mountain is.
See also Karl Popper’s role for falsifiability in the philosophy of science. Popper’s ideas are more applicable and have survived better, I think, but he was also asking easier questions.
The cultish groups that are forming and dissipating online are resistant to doubt and uncertainty. What does this say about their language? What meaning are they exchanging if their beliefs and statements and actions are uncorrelated but still for their purposes ‘true’?
Private qualia, in particular pains
What if a feeling is different for different people? I think most people have a moment in childhood like ‘what if my blue is your green’. The shock of disillusionment makes colors permanently less vivid afterwards.
Wittgenstein makes pain a particular example here on the assertion it requires no external proof and has no external sign. Like, if you think an apple is red, something may have been lost in translation, but if something hurts, it surely hurts. I don’t entirely buy this distinction; the sensation of pain can probably be faked in peripheral nerves (I think Kevin Warwick transmitted some sensations, or tried to). The urgency of pain could be faked, hypothetically, by a more sophisticated brain implant.
Nonetheless, this year’s online cults do have private pains – they have badly constructed grudges that don’t make sense to outsiders. These sufferers can be sympathized with, either for having suffered something else or for having been deceived, but they can’t easily be understood logically.
(A necromancer bounty-hunter fiction author’s story about her real-life neighbor in middle america is a perspective on why someone might pretend to believe something silly and wrong that allows them to reach a desired conclusion. ‘You can’t wake up someone pretending to be asleep’. Beware of empathy that requires suspension of disbelief, though also beware refusing empathy for people with alien biographies).
Maybe one function of these playful language communities is to rapidly iterate their shared invented pains. Because the complaints are nonsense to outsiders, it’s a system for continuously evolving dog whistles – piercing signal to members, distasteful noise to a public that’s listening on other frequencies.
I use topic-based lists to organize and limit my twitter reading. My lists are becoming infected with ‘parody accounts’ – the experts follow them and they’re amusing, so I gradually add them in too. I don’t know if you’d call them jokes or performance art or high sarcasm, but they’re not information, but it requires domain context to decode them, so they feel like deep wisdom.
In later work, Wittgenstein moved away from private language as a philosophy of meaning and focused on games, observing meaning in the construction of increasingly complex labels for collaborative actions. Twitter hijinks have an element of this; fast-mutating vocabulary flashing into being in ill-defined communities, where the most attentive insiders have a monopoly on the guest list i.e. the complete set of actions and words. You have to be very ‘very online’ to see this stuff happening in real-time.
I saw a quote from an extremism content observatory about using humor for camouflage and recruiting. (It also showed transcripts of Q drops; they appeared to be written in dolphin trinary. There were square brackets). Humor can be a gateway drug to lure in fellow travelers without shocking them. It also lets these groups exist in public spaces, and periodically get amplified just by being absurd. I read a bellingcat article about shitposting that I didn’t understand, but it convinced me that posting disruptive nonsense is a part of these groups’ philosophy.
Call it a salon if you like, call it a bioreactor, but the playful iterative material culture of these groups is part of how they work.
Warm little ponds
I thought of tide pools because I read something recently about the origins of the early molecules of life. Someone had made a breakthrough in the chemistry of how this could happen, but the article noted that the idea is quite old – Darwin wrote a letter about ‘some warm little pond’ with the right ingredients where ‘a protein compound’ might be born, where it would not ‘be instantly devoured, or absorbed’.
(This always makes me think of the end of Eliot’s Prufrock, the section that has the word ‘sea’ too many times, so it feels like you’re going blind. Which in turn reminds me of the tide pools at the end of Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep, which is an important book and if you have not read it you should; it’s about crisis and collapse. It’s my second favorite epistolary novel).
Isolated spaces with the right ingredients and few predators can breed diverse life.
Memes are not life (though if you ask their midwife Richard Dawkins you might get a different answer). Language is not strictly speaking alive. And yet life is information, and so life and language could require similar conditions for their incubation.
Fast-evolving languages amplify natural walls; a tiny speed bump early on, such that those outside have trouble keeping up, will grow to a broad gap in comprehension as change continues, divergently, on either side of the border. Culty splinter cultures thrive inside barriers, protected by meme boundaries or slang frontiers. Something there is that does not love a wall, but that something isn’t a cult.
Some degree of private language seems to be possible. A question facing our society and the open web is whether public language is possible.
Is PUBLIC language possible
Departing from Wittgenstein, I’ll ask if a public language is possible at scale: a thing that makes some use of all the various brains connected to it, even if mostly for sarcasm and art, but preserves common meaning by suppressing outliers. (Not to imply that outliers are always wrong; ‘when to preserve dissent’ is part of the question).
I saw a one-liner from someone in the superintelligence crowd saying that the internet is not a group mind exactly, but has done a good job of ‘democratizing IQ 160 answers’. Black hole researcher Stephen Hawking thinks people who care about IQ are losers. Maybe say instead ‘democratizing expert advice’, stack overflow at its best.
But stack overflow isn’t always at its best. As a recent learner of xcode and haskell, I’ve seen my share of gibberish, unclear instructions, and stale or wrong answers.
I have a sense from the ‘very online’ crowd that the bazaar failed in 2020. Someone had a one liner that experts forgot or doubted in march information that you could learn by searching pubmed in january. Grifters, the overconfident, and the sky-is-falling crowd got too loud and experts were too cautious, or too busy, to jump in. Public language failed us.
A too-effective system for aligning belief is dangerous too; there’s too fine a line between helping us to good beliefs vs measuring and forcing belief.
Slang has always had an element of intentional private language. Heavier-handed thought policing could lead to a slang arms race as platform technology faces down creative trolls who want to dwell under public bridges but not be widely understood.
Who can translate these languages now? I think it’s the filterati, the sacrificial lambs who read everything, who accept all evil into themselves to save the rest of us from war, who wade into garbage.
I’m out of ideas so I’ll close again with TH White:
“If I were to be made a knight,” said the Wart, staring dreamily into the fire, “I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, as Hob does with his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.”
“That would be extremely presumptuous of you,” said Merlyn, “and you would be conquered, and you would suffer for it.”
– TH White, probably Book 1
There’s a bazonkers first draft of this post steaming up my trash can about social media + dunbar’s number1. I was going to say some stuff about social media disrupting culture in the same way that culture disrupted tribal organization in the dunbar model. It was starting to sound like pop science darling yuval harari.2
Where yuval talks about culture as the non-violent glue of large groups, dunbar talks more narrowly about the role of language in compressing social maintenance3. That made me think of another pop science darling, less current but still in print: Wittgenstein.
Like all philosophers of information pre vacuum tube (except Alonzo Church and Einstein), Wittgenstein hasn’t aged well. Nor did he expect to. This is what he said about himself:
he felt as though he was writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.
Surrounded by silicon and ascii, socializing through a wire, we may be those different air-breathers.
I read robin dunbar’s research about facebook. I didn’t find the ideas I wanted about about the neurology of online society, but dunbar interestingly does seek to explain the departure of teens from facebook. He thinks FB is ‘too public’, that forcing them to enlarge their network with friends of friends strains their social capacity. ↩
Professional historians and anthropologists are not huge fans. I wish people would stop recommending Sapiens to me. If anything start with Joseph Painter. Rashida Jones asked him + Bill Gates in a podcast ‘what is microsoft’. Gates said ‘like apple but better at programming, worse at branding’. harari said msft was invented by shamans. I think that is not a correct take. ↩
Yes indeed I have a copy of his book. I think this is on p 78. ↩