Technology Dreams of Being Magic
The history of technology, from industrialization to cybernetics, from robotics to AI, has in fact been replete with this type of casual parallel between humans and machines, nonwhites and robots, technology and social, cultural »others.« The history of science fiction has served to rationalize and naturalize those parallels in such ways that issues of race and difference – including sex and immigration, as Levy reminds us – are central to the genre’s software, so much so that they always already make sense in our consumption of such narratives.
– Louis-Chude Sokei, Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation
My aim is to weave a new thread in the narrative Sokei so elegantly explicates in Machines and the Ethics of Miscegenation. This thread is often spoken of, mostly unwritten, and this brings me to the issue of language as a technology; a psychoacoustic technology of sonic fabulation. Language is an incredibly efficient colonial tool; for most Africans colonialism meant that tonal language was replaced by atonal language. Since all sub-Saharan languages (except Swahili) are »tone languages,« in the sense that the meaning of words depends on the tone or pitch in which they are said, this phenomena extends beyond tonality. In Nguni languages, we see how the Nguni perceives the individual as a multiplicity of all those that came before through the greeting rituals, whereas in the English language we see the individual as just that, an individual. Objects are seen as having a sort of consciousness and agency. In isiZulu we see this personification in words such as copper, which is called ithusi, which directly translates to »the helper,« we also see this personification in the word ntsimbi, which directly translates to »the bad metal.« We find a particular philosophical and moral awareness connected to the object. In the Zulu man’s world, their seraglio is language; take this away and he has nothing.
From a metaphysical standpoint, language and magic share many correlations. We not only cast spells; we spell words. Magic has a grimoire; language has grammar. We write and do magic rites. We bind with spells; we also bind books. Our model of the world is made of words; the world is a tapestry of description. We have minds co-creating the mantle, weaving our reality through language. Our mind is indispensable in experiencing the formality of existing; this is what quantum physics teaches. We’re entangled with language and its open-endedness; that’s what differentiates us from the wild ones. The observable world is syntactic in its nature. Language is the software of culture; it helps exteriorize our ideas and turn them into tools. It is our primary technology, helping, as Noam Chomsky noted, »the process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.«5 Therefore we’re confined, quarantined by this inheritance, our language. We take lines of flight, methodical, toward a shimmering tower of data, sharing knowledge; the only barrier standing in our way is that this transference is dependent on an author’s direct and subjective experience. It seems as if the key to our liberation from this linguistic quarantine is the separation of language from the individual, into some kind of rhizomorphic multiplicity.
Language is no longer the privilege of human beings. With the advent of AI, the rapid development of NLP and the increasing digital omnipresence in our lived experiences, language seems to be slowly slipping away from the human mind into that of quantum computer chips. With the recent release of GPT-3 and rapid development of AI, it’s possible there will come a time in our lifetime when we’ll see machines capable of producing poetry, novels, and other multiple syntactic forms and even computer code. However, we have a problem. And the problem isn’t automation; the problem is us.