Text is Technology: Newsletter #16


The Technology of Text

If you've been receiving these emails for a while, you might notice that the newsletter looks a little different this week. It's because I am changing newsletter hosts from Mailchimp to Tinyletter. Email is still our primary textual technology and tinyletter suits my needs better. Incidentally, Tinyletter is owned by Mailchimp, but it is targeted toward personal newsletters. That works for me, since I am not really interested in A/B testing or customer segments or any of the other things that businesses need in their email campaigns while making use of the fantastic UI and ease of use that I've come to love about Mailchimp.

That brings me to the topic of this email - the technology of text. If you have been following my newsletters, you know that I am obsessed with text in its various forms:

  1. Writing

  2. Code

  3. Mathematics

  4. Stories

and so on.

As a - more or less - universally literate society, we have pushed text into the background. We read text, but we don't examine the mechanism behind text. It's useful to view text through an engineer's eyes, since text is technology . It is, in fact, the technology that makes idealism possible.

Philosophers have talked about the clash between idealism and realism for millennia. Simply put, realists privilege hardware over software, while idealists privilege software over hardware. That distinction plays out in every human endeavor. In science, idealists privilege ultimate laws and principles (think string theory) while realists privilege manipulation and prediction (think biology). In foreign policy, realists talk about "the national interest" while idealists talk about democracy and freedom. In IT, idealists write software and realists build hardware.

I am a software kind of guy, though I find hardware immensely fascinating; every major human advance is an interplay between the two. Gutenberg makes both Cervantes and Galileo possible. Computing brings the two together in an unprecedented manner in a manner that we're only beginning to unravel.

Why do I say that?

Consider the archetypal piece of hardware: the machine . Turing showed that machines are nothing but text - the essence of machines is about drawing 0's and 1's on paper while erasing and writing those digits. With computing we are now able to control and move objects by writing about them. How amazing is that? We don't really understand how that happens; I think we await new innovations in abstraction before we will understand how text can move stuff. If that sounds awfully like the mind-body problem, you would be right. In other words, AI, cognitive science and the philosophy of mind are tied to the evolution of writing. Put another way, the future of media is the future of the mind.

This Week's Links

Two articles on media and text.

  1. Why text still rules. Posted earlier, but especially relevant to this discussion.

  2. The future of new media.