We Are What We Read / Bitcoin and Lovecraft

Somebody, somewhere, has mashed up an internet thinkpiece on bitcoin with weird near-future sci-fi and mind-bending Lovecraftian horror. It is the internet after all.

However many examples of the above already existed (it is the internet after all!), there is one in particular that I read recently, over the course of a roughly two-hour train ride.

Read with caution: https://zerohplovecraft.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/the-gig-economy-2/

I don’t know exactly where it came from or who wrote it; the blog that posted it has no other information and only one other (protected) post, apparently a draft of the public version. This anonymity is suitably in-character and probably deliberate. I found out about the story through this Slate Star Codex post; I would not be at all surprised if Scott Alexander is behind the whole thing and just didn’t want it directly associated with that online identity for some reason.

I won’t go into the story itself really at all, there’s not a lot of it I could do justice to and while “read with caution” is entirely accurate, it is absolutely worth reading. Instead I want to talk about what reading does to us.

For some time after I’ve read something truly absorbing, the imprint of that work stays with me, echoing through not only my thoughts but also my speech patterns, word choice, and something which I struggle to describe other than as “the shape of my consciousness”. For example, I’m a big fan of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and its sequels (collectively The Kingkiller Chronicle). Rothfuss has a very distinctive, very fluid style of prose, often characterized by lists without the typical join words like “as” or “his”. From the first page of the first chapter of The Name of the Wind:

They had taken his sword and stripped him of his tools: key, coin, and candle were all gone.

Note the lack of repeated “his” before the descriptive list, and also the alliteration. From a few pages later:

It was a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate.

Note the lack of “and as” before the word “black”. I’m not even sure if this sentence as written is technically correct, but it’s clear enough and the overall effect of an entire book constructed this way is beautiful. Language is descriptive not prescriptive anyway.

It’s easy to understand how reading some 1200 pages of this prose might impact one’s own speech patterns. I’ve gone through the available books a couple of times over the years, and every time I’ll spend a week or more afterwards speaking just like Rothfuss writes: terse, eloquent, fluid.

[J]ust like Rothfuss writes: terse, eloquent, fluid.

See? I’m doing it here after just talking about it.

But as I mentioned, it goes beyond just word choice and sentence structure. I already mentioned “the shape of my consciousness” and I stand by that vague gesture towards something I can’t otherwise pin down. Although I do have a small poetic and flowery streak, I am not normally given to purple prose, but for some time after I’ve read Rothfuss I won’t just speak it; I’ll think it. Something about the shape of the sentences, the word choices, demands that adjectives and nouns come in sets, which means I use more of them than I otherwise would. This gives everything more shape than it would otherwise have, and paints a richer picture of the world.

I make different decisions as a result. I am a different person.

This is, I suppose, just a really complicated way of saying “this book changed my life”! That’s not an incorrect interpretation. But really, I’m arguing anecdotally for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

I’m doing that, just to be able to say: that “The Gig Economy” story did some weird things to my brain. I’m glad I didn’t have to interact with other humans for a while afterwards.

Conventional Language: A Problem of Social Negotiation

The philosophy of language is an extremely broad field covering a number of interesting problems. Unfortunately the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not appear to have an umbrella article on the topic, but the Wikipedia entry is fairly decent.

The SEP does, however, have an article on Conventions of Language, especially on how convention (effectively what I’ve been calling social negotiation) generates meaning. The Lewisian and Gricean accounts in that article provide an interesting “base” to build upon, which I will do by responding to some of the objections given in that article (and modifying them as I see fit along the way).

Sentences, Words, and the Components of Meaning (Stanford Section 7.2.2)

One such objection is on the relations of sentences to words, and how previously-unspoken sentences can have meaning since there must be no convention behind them (given that they’ve never before been spoken). This objection neatly knocks down the sentence-based accounts of Lewis and Grice, and appealing to just sentences-as-composed of words has its own serious problems. The underlying problem is that the unit of meaning is itself fuzzy.

Consider idiom: there is a Polish expression which roughly translates as “not my circus, not my monkey” and means, more generally “not my problem”. Here we have a phrase whose words would seem to mean one thing, but whose actual meaning is something else. Both meanings are valid, and both are due to social negotiation; it is simply that the conventional sentence meaning overrides the conventional word meaning for those who hear it (except in the context, of course, where an actual circus and monkey are present!).

It is perfectly possible for some person to speak fluent Polish but be totally unaware of this idiom: given that it is syntactically valid and composed only of known words, they would be able to assign a coherent meaning to it the first time they heard it, but the speaker would then be required to explain the convention in order to get their point across. However, if a circus and monkey were present, then our listener would be able to accurately construct the literal and intended meaning of the sentence without any additional explanation.

The point here is that the source of meanings is not specifically words, or sentences, or anything else. Meaning can be assigned to abstractions and speech-components of any size, and when we end up with multiple conflicting meanings at various layers of abstraction, we default to the “largest” (most abstract) unit unless context indicates otherwise.

Grammar and Radical Interpretation (Stanford Section 7.2.3)

Chomsky (further developed by Schiffer and others) argues that language is an internal process related to semantic and psychological properties bearing no special ties to social interaction or convention. This is a radically different tack, and not obviously wrong. It seems feasible, for example, for some person entirely isolated from any other being to develop and think in some new language. Where is the social negotiation in that?

Strictly speaking there isn’t any, but that simply makes the language entirely arbitrary. With no social interactions to bind the meanings and force conventions for practicality’s sake, the speaker is free to change it entirely at will. This makes the actual words and grammar used effectively meaningless, since the only association they actually have with the thought processes of the speaker is that speaker’s “speaker-meaning” (in the Gricean sense) at the time of utterance. If the speaker develops conventions regardless she is free to do so, but there “conventionality” is limited to the speaker’s habit, nothing more.

(Chomsky also does this bit about language as tacitly known grammatical rules, but I feel I effectively dealt with that tack in the previous section on multiple layers of meaning).

In a related way, Davidson points out that there are cases where we deviate from any conventional meaning (at any layer) and fall back to what he calls “radical interpretation” (effectively guessing based on context). Since we are capable of this radical interpretation at any time (when dealing with malapropisms, spoonerisms, etc), then in some sense language is independent of convention. I would argue that while radical interpretation is certainly communication, it is not actually language per se.

This redefinition is in some sense just a linguistic trick, but I believe it effectively answers the spirit of the argument: we are perfectly capable of communicating in some sense without language, though the process is laborious and error-prone. Just because we sometimes fall back on contextual clues when using language does not make those clues part of language itself, any more than falling back to a lower-level programming language for one part performance-critical piece of a program makes that lower-level language “part of” the principle language in use. They are simply different methods of communication that we are free to mix for our own convenience.