Monday, June 13, 2005

Shadow Barriers

Here is something moderately interesting.

Some of you may have noticed that most of my sociological musings revolve around how many people there are and how they interact. The idea of 'singularity' is very interesting to me, because it essentially says that there are a functionally INFINITE number of people with no communication barrier. How the hell would society manage that?

I've had a few ideas, but most of them revolve around voluntary or semi-voluntary separation. For example, language separation. The fact that I don't speak German really limits my involvement in the German software industry, which is actually a bit of a shame, since there's a bunch of interesting software coming from over there.

When we're talking about languages on-line, you can see some interesting things happening. The young people who dive into a given area of the net rapidly develop a mutant dialect of the language they speak. Their differing experiences are rapidly pushing these dialects further and further from 'normal' communication for one big reason: their society talk is almost entirely limited to what their society is about. If you jump onto a MMORPG forum and compare it to a Linux forum, you'll see radically different dialects. Understanding a good chunk of the posts on either is totally impossible to someone who doesn't 'walk the walk'.

But it ISN'T just a matter of 'drift'! That's important to remember! Sure, there's drift - that's what "leet" really is, a hyperaccelerated linguistic drift. But the big thing about these dialects is their hyperSPECIALIZATION. Because of the lack of ‘real’ boundaries, the societies glom together to focus on a small subset of reality. So focused, they rapidly progress and develop a specialized vocabulary and (occasionally) their own modified rule set.

This has been happening more and more since language began. Doctors always used a specific parlance, for example. Investors, too. Managers developed one a few hundred years ago, as far as I can see. These specialized lingos allow the people to communicate faster and freer and advance their specialization more efficiently… but they ALSO raise barriers against entry! This is amusing to me, because that means that while they raise efficiency, they lower growth rate.

Given that when doctors talk shop, I can’t understand a single thing… and when I talk shop, they can’t, we’re reaching a level of specialization which would have been undreamed of even a century ago.

I expect this to continue. Now, if we imagine that communication and memetic barriers continue to drop, we can expect these wholly intangible and semi-voluntary “shadow barriers” to rise up and keep people separated especially effectively because they will focus their efforts on these communities rather than their school or sports community. This means their dialects will not be moderated and there will be less need for a 'common' language. Moreover, out of the chaos of ten million people talking theory, I expect fully distinct dialects to pop up all talking about THE SAME THING. Just in game design, this has already happened – we talk about play, entrainment, etc, etc.

In the past, these dialects have been recombined by aggressive theorists seeking to conquer new territory or, more likely, new audiences. However, these dialects will begin to pop up more and more often, and in the ‘shadow geography’ of the new linguistics, it will probably be harder to reconcile them. Leading to a ‘shattering’ of a given field’s linguistics. I’ve seen some pretty strong hints of this in both computer science and in psychology – suddenly, two people doing the SAME THING have to spend an hour explaining to each other what they are doing… and when the explanation is done, each thinks the other is a NUT.

Both of them speak a ‘base tongue’. They can communicate with each other – and with the jock on the street – with their ‘common’ language. However, even that is showing stress – although the inner city punk and the white-bread rich kid CAN talk to each other, each has an extremely distinct accent and it’s rare that they have any common ground to talk to each other about. They can THEORETICALLY talk, but it is less and less common that they WILL.

It is an interesting theory, I think, to presume that this drift will continue. In a hundred years, the guys who design space ships will be UNABLE to talk to the sports dudes simply because their languages will have drifted so far apart - and they have no need of a 'common' tongue in day-to-day life. They’ll have to hire translators to negotiate between the various divisions of a corporation, and these translators will be just as bilingual as someone who speaks both French and Italian today.

THAT is how sanity will be kept in the world of singularity, IMO. A semi-voluntary limiting of community: as the communities get too large, their language fractures and specializes, leaving it as at least two distinct, loosely connected entities. Some communities will be larger than others – it depends on whether they are focused more on growing or advancing.

Pretty interesting idea, I think. The end result is a re-shrinking of communities. These days we've had an explosion of users - ten thousand posts to a forum each day? Who could keep up? You can't. The 'shadow geography' of the forum will lead you to read specific posts and ignore others. If the geography affects others similarly, then there are essentially TWO fora operating in the same space, only interacting a little.

A steady exacerbation of 'right hand doesn't know what left hand is doing' will occur. Even now, we have that problem pretty severely, but if this theory holds true, it would be a million times worse. Communication would effectively be 'cut' between people who, today, have little trouble working with each other. Companies would develop their own 'company lingo', and then would have trouble interacting with new customers... unless they happen to know the same 'marketing lingo'.


Put another way, how would Babelfish translate "Left Outer Join" so that Joe Shmoe would understand it in 'english'?

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