math is the world's dominant language -- 8/03/17

Today's encore selection -- from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The dominant languages of the world today are those of bureaucracy, machines and mathematics, and they have gradually changed the way humans think and view the world:

"In the brain, all data is freely associated. When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk. In bureaucracy, things must be kept apart. There is one 'drawer' for home mortgages, another for marriage certificates, a third for tax registers, and a fourth for lawsuits. Otherwise, how can you find anything? Things that belong in more than one drawer, like Wagnerian music dramas (do I file them under 'music', 'theatre', or perhaps invent a new category altogether?), are a terrible headache. So one is forever adding, deleting and rearranging drawers.

Binary Code

"In order to function, the people who operate such a system of drawers must be reprogrammed to stop thinking as humans and to start thinking as clerks and accountants. As everyone from ancient times till today knows, clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion. They think like filing cabinets. This is not their fault. If they don't think that way their drawers will all get mixed up and they won't be able to provide the services their government, company or organisation requires. The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

"As the centuries passed, bureaucratic methods of data processing grew ever more different from the way humans naturally think -- and ever more important. A critical step was made sometime before the ninth century AD, when a new partial script was invented, one that could store and process mathematical data with unprecedented efficiency. This partial script was composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9. Confusingly, these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus (even more confusingly, modern Arabs use a set of digits that look quite different from Western ones). But the Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, understood its usefulness, refined it, and spread it through the Middle East and then to Europe. When several other signs were later added to the Arab numerals (such as the signs for addition, subtraction and multiplication), the basis of modern mathematical notation came into being.

"Although this system of writing remains a partial script, it has become the world's dominant language. Almost all states, companies, organisations and institutions -- whether they speak Arabic, Hindi, English or Norwegian -- use mathematical script to record and process data. Every piece of information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored, spread and processed with mindboggling speed and efficiency.

"A person who wishes to influence the decisions of governments, organisations and companies must therefore learn to speak in numbers. Experts do their best to translate even ideas such as 'poverty', 'happiness' and 'honesty' into numbers ('the poverty line', 'subjective well-being levels', 'credit rating'). Entire fields of knowledge, such as physics and engineering, have already lost almost all touch with the spoken human language, and are maintained solely by mathematical script.

"More recently, mathematical script has given rise to an even more revolutionary writing system, a computerised binary script consisting of only two signs: 0 and 1. The words I am now typing on my keyboard are written within my computer by different combinations of 0 and 1.

"Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers. And this is not the end of the story. The field of artificial intelligence is seeking to create a new kind of intelligence based solely on the binary script of computers."


Yuval Noah Harari


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind




Copyright 2015 by Yual Noah Harari



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