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[Xmca-l] Why Computers Make So Little Difference

In a recent interview, Chomsky was asked how computers would transform
language. He scoffed a little, and remarked that he didn't think they
would, at least not nearly as much as printing presses did. I am inclined
to attribute this view to Chomsky's general anti-developmentalism, but on
reflection, it occurs to me that there are three good reasons to suspect
that so far, Chomsky's right.

First of all, the printing press made it possible to create whole
populations of literate people. The impact of computers has been much more
restricted, simply because it requires a certain capital threshold to buy
into that impact, and this threshold is denied to whole countries and to
whole sections within even the most affluent countries.

Secondly, the printing press made it possible to turn information into a
printed commodity at a moment when the creation and distribution of
commodities was a central neoformation in human productivity. The impact of
computers has been--well, largely to create and distribute commodities. But
this just isn't a neoformation any more, and it actually has the effect of
atomizing and trivializing information in many cases, the way that putting
a poem or even a good scientific book on a PPT atomizes and trivializes it.

(Sometimes when I walk over to the stacks in the nearby library and look up
a journal article, I take a moment to marvel at how much historical
perspective--how many opportunities to learn things while looking up other
things--I lose when I simply "hunt and peck" for articles I need on the

Thirdly, and most importantly from a CHAT perspective: the priniting press
changed our unit of analysis for language in a very fundamental way:
meanings, wordings, and soundings became clearly
distinct and differentiated for the first time. There isn't any comparable
shift in the unit of analysis for language wrought by computers.

For the illiterate, the printing press made it possible to abstract
meanings from wordings and wordings from soundings for the first time: the
distancing effect destroyed forever the illusion that words were simply
names for actual objects and forced every literate person to think in terms
of examples of concepts instead. Even for the literate, the printing press
made it possible to see wordings and even soundings as made of
interchangeable parts, and of meanings as examples of concepts that have to
be built up from soundings and wordings.

(As an idealist, Chomsky has a good grasp of this: he often points out that
words like "river" only really refer to concepts within the mind, not to
physical objects, and the correspondence of that concept to reality is
really a coincidence and not a reflection of any kind--what he is not ready
to accept is that that coincidence is carefully set up and stage managed by
culture and history and not simply a product of evolution.)

The computer actually obscures all this, not only by bringing graphics,
sound, and text together again, but also by creating, on the semantic
plane, the illusion of a single concrete virtual reality, when in fact all
we really have are separate computers, which we can use to create that
illusion by technical rather than imaginative means.

We often think of the history of information as speeding up as it
progresses, the way life appears to a man in his late middle age. But it is
also possible to regard it as slowing down, the way life appears when we
look at a small child, or, more generally, when we consider this history
not as the creation of information but instead as the creation of potential.

David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies