I can imagine many people might think the title of this post means it will be all about love, sex and such. Well, not exactly. It’s about relationships – but not merely limited to the exclusive kind of relationship two lovers who might be married might have.
It also isn’t about cheating husbands or wives. So what is this post about? (is there anything left? )
Well, I almost hate to break it to you: It’s about how relationships interact with language. I know: It’s just what you were afraid of. Abstract and dry, when you were thinking you might finally get hot and steamy. Sorry, Charlie.
The rest of you, however, might still find this post somewhat amusing and entertaining – so please: Do read on!
Most of what I have been writing about above is expressed in a plain and simple language – the kind of talk you might expect to exchange with someone while walking around town. But there are many other people on earth than the folks you might meet while out and about socializing. You are probably more intimate with some people, and less intimate with other people. Another way of saying this is that your close friends are close relationships, and that your more distant friends are distant relationships (and in this sense closeness doesn’t really refer to geographical distance, but rather to the level of intimacy in the relationship).
Although few people would actually be surprised to hear me say so, most people don’t seem to think much about how intimacy plays a role in language and communication. However, I do think we talk significantly differently with close friends than we do with distant friends. Indeed, this is almost blatantly obvious when people consider the way they talk with their most „significant other“. At this degree of intimacy, the language we use almost becomes a private matter, and the meanings of expressions are like intimate secrets among utmost „insiders“.
The other extreme is more complicated linguistically. There is really no exact point at which someone is an extreme foreigner. If they do not understand our language at all – well, that would be close… but they might still smile or understand us in some similar intuitive manner. Even a dog or a cat could recognize if someone is happy, sad, hurt or maybe something else. Maybe other life forms – other animals or even plants – can understand something. Perhaps only a rock would be totally unperturbed if we tried to communicate something to it.
But let’s leave such extreme cases aside, and focus on cases where we might be able to assume we „speak the same language“. You might be aware that speaking the same language is not a simple and straightforward matter. Some people might only know a few words (and might be able to answer a question like „Do you speak English?“ with „Yes“ or „No“ – indeed: answering „no“ seems to be a little ironic, because the question was apparently correctly understood and appropriately answered).
Let’s consider the case in which someone might answer „Yes – a little“ to be the most distant relationship possible. This is the least intimate case – the „world-wide“ friend. We think of these acquaintances – or even faceless people – essentially as stick-figures with a pocket-dictionary of maybe one or two hundred words. If we could, we would gesticulate to try to make ourselves clear. As it is, we reduce our sentences to short, simple expressions.
Between these two extremes, a vast plethora of social relationships exist for each of us. In order to manage the complexity, we also maintain a repertoire of languages – or sub-languages, if you will: jargons (one jargon for each community, each type of kind of social relationship). Let me illustrate this with an example that should be familiar to most people familiar with popular sports. Let’s take soccer – or football, as it’s called in most of the English-speaking world outside of the United States. When football fans are watching a game on TV or listening to a match on the radio, and they hear the announcer scream „GOAL!“ then they are normally quite certain about what that means. Note that it is a keepers objective to keep a ball out of the goal – in other words: his (or her) goal is to keep the ball from crossing the line. Likewise: in other contexts, people might use the word „goal“ in a different sense than the very specific meaning given to the term in this context.
This is by no means an exceptional case. We speak differently with our children than we speak with our neighbors. We speak differently with our colleagues at work than we speak with government officials. Through role-playing scripts we understand that the number the person at the checkout just said means the amount we have to pay for our groceries. Such limits on language in particular situations makes communication more efficient.
Whereas humans can easily recognize a vast variety of contexts, this is not so – or at least not yet so – for the vast majority of „artificial intelligence“ – machines, computers, smartphones, robots, etc. For these mounds of metal and silicon chips, sweitches are either on or off – independent of context. Explaining context in a string of true-or-false bits is probably no easy matter, either. Machines require all minutiae explicated in complete detail. Everything must be formally expressed.
Perhaps artificial intellegence is the antithesis – the diametrical opposite – of intimacy?
Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. In any case it’s not a human thing. It can very useful to have such machines to tally up numbers – because they can be completely cool-headed and disengaged. My point here is not to argue for or against man or machine. My focus is 100% human – and the point is this: humans behave, engage and communicate differently in different contexts.
A one-size fits-all algorithm that is applied equally in all contexts will quite probably miss the mark completely in many contexts.
We should not try to mold humans into forms made for robots. If computers cannot understand humans, then that is a shortcoming of computers – not the other way around. We can still celebrate machines for their ability to perform some tasks, but we should not be so foolish to think that their abilities in some contexts makes them a suitable technology for all contexts.