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Language and logic

Another day is coming to a close, and I have been wrestling with an annoying problem with my blog for the last hour or so (it is somehow still linking to a pdf that I deleted). I also realise that I haven't posted since Sunday. The problem I had reminded me of something I wrote back in 2001 when setting up a website for my Masters - so, in 'filler post' manner, I am pasting here :-) I never used it in my Masters dissertation, but it always stuck in my head, so why not post it here now?

It's a bit unpolished, and I edited it slightly. But here it is:


Western civilisation is closely linked with the totalising approach that is represented by the scientific discipline. The modern computers are based on transistors that are now so small that thousands of them are contained on one silicon chip. Transistors operate on a binary system whereby the transistor can be either in an 'On' or 'Off' position; computing logic is based on a series of questions relating to statements to which the answer can be either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. These are run at an unimaginable speed through the arrays of transistors and come out with the type of program that I am using to type these words. It is tempting to draw a direct line back to the Aristotelian syllogism, where A cannot be also B. Within the binary system there is no room for uncertainty or grey areas, all probabilities and possibilities will be expressed in terms of quantitative statistical mathematical probabilities. It is this unforgiving logic that is at the root of the information technologies – the technology that is a product of the social system from which it is drawn, a product of it and thus it also will contribute to the reproduction of the type of system that produced it.

An anecdote from my preparation of the website illustrates the way in which the engagement in particular practices may teach particular types of logic. For a few days I have been coming back to a problem I had with my online questionnaire whereby for a reason I could not fathom, some of the answers were being correctly reported in the summary sheet, while others weren’t. Finally, through a process of trial and error, I discovered that it was the label I was giving some of the questions, e.g. : "Q3.1", or "Q4.2_other", that was the problem. Specifically, it was the dot between the numbers that made the difference, this was not mentioned in the instruction manual which says, in relation to this point:
"List/Menu Assigns a name to the list or menu. This field is required, and the name must be unique!"

The name must be unique, but it does not say that if it has a dot in it then it may/will not work. This is the kind of technical shortcoming that is often described as a ‘bug’, errors that are seen as integral to a computer program but would never be acceptable in most other consumer goods that are put on the market. It may also be that it is way in which Dreamweaver has encoded the actual instructions in HTML for this particular element of the graphical interface does not correspond with how the other program – a ‘CGI script’ – operates. The latter is what is run when the questionnaire is filled out and then the ‘Submit’ button is pushed. In fact I have no idea what the real cause is, the only apparent cause that I see is the errant dot, but the reasons why that dot is causing a problem are probably multiple and even if someone were to explain them to me, it is likely that I would not understand it.

The reason why I tell this rather anodyne anecdote, the type of experience many people have had, is that it seems to me that in grappling with the software, I am obliged to start to think in a specific, probably Cartesian, manner. I am learning a language, and a particular type of logic. – if, in my 'travels' in cyberspace I was to meet up with someone who had used the same software then we would have a common understanding that may enhance or otherwise influence our interaction.

I’m moving towards a techno-determinist argument here: i.e. the programme has a ‘language’ that will influence my interaction with another person. However it is in the strength and inevitability of the potential causal link that I would like to place my argument. I have learnt a different logic, let’s assume, but I will use it according to my own interpretation of what is necessary and important for myself. This will be based on previously learnt behaviours and ingrained habits/practices. I may have learnt a new logic or language, but whether it actually affects my practices will depend on how much it clashes with previously learnt thought processes and the extent to which I perceive that taking on this logic will enable me to further my interests as defined by my social upbringing.