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Computing-Inspired Roles of Language and Culture in the 21st Century

April 16, 2013

Paul Fishwick, Distinguished Endowed Chair of Arts and Technology and Professor of Computer Science, will be presenting on Computing-Inspired Roles of Language and Culture in the 21st Century as part of the Art Rendevous Science (ARS) Research Colloquia series on Wed., April 24 at noon in the ATEC Conference Room, ATEC 1.606.


Dr. Paul Fishwick

There have been recent offline and informal discussions on the role of computing in the arts and humanities, especially with regard to computing’s role as a discipline in characterizing the nature of language.

This discussion, and debate, is most timely as I believe it corresponds to an emerging recognition of elements of computing (e.g., computational thinking) as being central not only to science and engineering, but also to the arts and humanities and all other disciplines. ATEC and EMAC, playing leading roles for this emergence, have an opportunity to reinvent the academy through trans-disciplinary collaboration and engagement.

There are many questions. What is computational thinking or computer science? What are the humanities? What is culture? What is language? How do we, the faculty, envision our new roles within the university, and can we expand traditional concepts of culture and language?

The exponential increase in the use of computing technology over the past half-century has radically augmented our traditional understanding of culture. For example, we have cultures based on specific types of communication (e.g., cell phone), social networking, game, and web technologies. These technology-inspired cultures hold equal weight to cultural classifications based on genetics and geographic boundaries. Technology-based culture augments—not replaces—traditional cultural taxonomies.

A core component of culture is language. Modern living requires knowledge of navigating menus and options for consumer goods. A formal description of this navigation is a type of language whether visually or textually expressed. It is not possible to operate a phone, for example, without understanding the language (i.e., grammar, semantics, and pragmatics) of menu/option specification. Grammar defines the syntax through which parsing occurs, semantics defines the encoded meaning, and pragmatics involves the human interface that elevates context into an interactive manifestation of the semantics.

Languages such as these are integral to every device, component, and piece of equipment that we use on a daily basis. Such devices are increasing in speed, decreasing in size, and becoming not only prostheses, but also integral parts of our bodies. The devices help us to re-define ourselves, and our relationships to everything else. It is not possible to operate a microwave oven without an understanding of deep computing concepts such as state, event, transition, relation, and function even though these abstract terms may not appear in the user’s manual. Knowledge of the abstract concepts underlying these languages is essential to form the knowledge base of the average person living in the twenty-first century. It is entirely insufficient to limit this knowledge only to those obtaining degrees in science and engineering.

In 1957 (with “Syntactic Structures”), Noam Chomsky, a linguist by training, provided the following definition of language: “Language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length, and constructed out of a finite state of elements.” Based on Chomsky’s prescient and prolific research, those who obtain Computer Science (CS) degrees are presented early with his language hierarchy. This hierarchy guides us to a deep understanding of language that is present not only in the manual for how to operate a microwave oven, but also in general purpose languages such as Java, FORTRAN, and C++. Why aren’t others outside of CS provided with this knowledge? There is the issue of degree or depth, since not everyone needs to understand the deep mathematical relationships present in the formal hierarchy. And yet, there are ways to impart these universal language concepts to the masses. Thus, an understanding of the fundamental principles of language cannot possibly occur without balancing concepts present in both artificial and natural language. Without this hybrid understanding, we in the academy will be generating a host of students who learn traditional modes of narrowly defined forms of human communication without a corresponding comprehension of how our modern world functions.

I’ll be addressing some of these issues at an upcoming talk that I’ll give on April 24th at 12pm in ATEC 1.606, and would enjoy your feedback, critique, and comments. I envision a future for ATEC and EMAC faculty that is not only highly integrative, but is also singularly situated to break artificial divisions that may currently exist regarding culture and language.

—Dr. Paul Fishwick

Find out more by attending Dr. Fishwick’s Lecture or by contacting him directly. This is the first column in a series called Philosophy Sandbox.