I was first attracted to Electric Language by its title, but it has turned into a model of philosophical enquiry that I can use much more extensively than I foresaw. In particular, there is the transformation theory that explores the modes of cultural change enabled by the transformation from oral/aural culture, to chirographic (hand-written) culture, then to typographic culture, and on to electric culture.
Heim supports much of my thinking about the transformative nature of technology (and Gardiner in his view that transformations are not just incidental but evolutionary), and adds new dimensions to my ideas about exploring consequential sociological effects of computer programming and the info-culture proferred by computer companies who use themselves as models for all business behaviour. The objectification of human interactions and the submersion of creativity into the confines of human-computer interfaces is great fodder, indeed, for philosophical and theoretical work in social science. No doubt, we expand ourselves and our cognitive space with new media; equally, we create what may regarded as unnatural limits to creativity by creating extensions with less than worthy functionality.
Now, the book is not completely useful. As the title clearly suggests, it's about word processing, not language in general. So, there is a point, reached in the neighbourhood of Chapter 5, The Phenomenon of Word Processing (1999), after which the generalities of transformation, language and enframing are sufficiently clear to get on with the prime subject matter. From there, I find the details less applicable to my purpose.
Heim is unequivocal about the position of language: "More than an instrument within the world, language is an overarching, limited order of nameable identities and events. ([[Heim, 1999]|p. 77]]. In this, Heim seems to suggest that it's not possible to discuss what language, with its semantic manners, categorically prevents, quite contrary to Pinker's view (Pinker, 1994, p. ??. No matter this one point of dissention, there is plenty of other concordance to help me out. For example, he says, about word processing tools, that they are not ...
"simply an external tool, something which we may pick up or let alone as we wish, something towards which we remain essentially indifferent. The proponents of programs like Framework speak of a a computerized entension of the mind and emphasize the adaptability of such tools to helping create other tools: Another way to think of Framework is as a software machine tool. That is, Framework is a kit full of software tools which can, in turn, be used to creat new work tools. (1999, p. 90)
Heim attributes the above-emphasized quotation to William Harrison, Framework: An Introduction, (Culver City, CA: Ashton-Tate Publishing Group, 1984), p. 30. Framework incorporated its own programming capability.
Heim was apparently smitten with the analogy of Framework to a machine tool to the extent that he did not dispute it. And, of course, this is the crux of my toolshop analogy, but it obtained only this brief mention. To be clear at this point, my contention is that this simple explanation, which I don't believe anyone appreciates fully, explains the ascendancy of modern software to literally rule this world, essentially a construct of human minds in which written traditions gain so much more purchase than mere talking. Exactly why physically embodied communication is so much more potent than temporal media, such as sound or live visual experiences, would be an excellent question to answer.
Also, it is perhaps significant that Heim's quote is from a person of the software industry making the analogy of a software tool to a machine tool. There is a connection to the physical world that philosophers and social scientists seem to lack that software people, even given the ethereal nature of electronic signals, appreciate fully.
Here is another point of applicability to my thinking that Heim raises. It has to do with the mindset of the computer programmer. Another long quote from Heim, 1999 which I must reproduce here:
By placing the process of bringing things to word into manipulable frames, Framework presents an instance of Heidegger's claim The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. The word 'picture' (Bild) now means the structure image (Gebild) that is the creature of man's producing which represents and sets before. And to the objectifying presentation of the world Heidegger adds that human activity is constantly provoked or lured into the production process of the Enframing. Appropriately enough, the intended result assumed by most of the guidebooks for writing programs is the enhancement of personal productivity for knowledge workers. As cited above, Framwork makes it possible for knowledge workers to manage information in wholly new ways. To do so, Framework induces more systematic thinking about work. (p. 91)
So, here we have a suggestion of what I contend happens to programmers, in a more general sense, potentially occurring amid knowledge workers. (I say potentially because I believe that only a very few of them will become embroilled in the prospects.) They become part of a system of thinking that expands their base capabilities by augmenting their intelligence. There is an observable speciation of thought process that is radically different from the norm. How many knowledge workers might become so endowed is another matter. What attracts people to join the software industry and to become programmers is the wind that blows them across the mountains to where a new species of thinking can evolve. (I refer here to one of my analogies explained in The Toolshop Story.) Evolution occurs because their way of thinking about their tools, about the problems they have to solve and how the tools can be used, is different: they are the proverbial geeks; they don't just accept the world they are in and use it incidentally but there is a rush of new reality, one borne by the prospect of the tool and the vision that comes from the its realization. Rich people get the same kick from the prospect of profit, seeing situations that could generate revenue. Leadership freaks see power structures and how to use them. Academics and scientists get that feeling from conundra and glimmers of solutions. All these people shape the world in their own way, some more to their personal benefit than others. Seeing the patterns and wielding them is what drives the shapers. I'm hell-bent to show how software developers have created a toolset from a tool-oriented mindset that has become the path to manipulating information.
Here is yet another point raised by Heim, which has little to do with word-processing by the way. He quotes from Howard Reingold (1985 pp. 248-249), which I have reproduced here.
Human information processors have a very small short-term memory, however, which means that while all computers and no humans can extract the square roots of thousand-digit numbers in less than a second, no computers and all humans can recognize a familiar face in a crowd. By connecting part of the computer's internal processes to a visible symbolic representation, bit-mapping puts the most sophisticated part of the hman information processor in closer contact with the most sophisticated part of the mechanical information processor ... Creating new kinds of computer input and output devices to help human pattern recognition mesh with mechanical symbol manipulatin is known as 'designing the human interface.' (Heim, 1999, p. 99)
Reingold carries the idea of IA (intelligence amplification) in a slightly different direction than I have, but close enough. I contend that data visualizations are visual analogies, just as scientific research is a process of creating analogies for real-world phenomena. Hofstadter (2009) and I contend that analogy is crucial to human thinking and cognition. If we spend our software development resources creating visual analogies (whether animated simulations of real world phenomena or visualizations of data), we will be move much closer to solving humanity's problems than if we continue to stir the artificial intelligence pot. I go one step further: if, along the way, we can put the toolshop effect into the hands of ordinary citizens by leveraging the power of linguistic constructs in design and construction of the visualization tools, we will push problem-solving to new heights.
Michael Heim get's an A+ for helping me out so generously.
First released in 1987, back when personal computers had just started replacing typewriters, this book asked what was then an important question: How deep are the changes word processing is making to the way we relate to words and to the structure of thought that words embody? Today, with the PC's conquest of the desktop complete, that question matters more than ever--and so does Heim's thoughtful attempt at an answer.
Grounding his arguments in a wide-ranging review of the Western philosophical tradition, Heim starts by making a nuanced case for the pivotal role of writing tools in shaping the way we think. He begins with the flowering of literacy that informed the philosophical discoveries of ancient Greece and continues through to the print technology that loomed so large in the rise of modern European thought. And Heim suggests that now similarly fundamental changes are afoot in our transition from the culture of the printed book to that of the fluid, word-processed electronic text.
Heim's not your typical cybervisionary, though. He doesn't generalize about these changes, nor does he just celebrate them; he takes a close look at the experience of actually using word processing technologies, careful to note what's been lost in the shift from paper to screen. At times his observations seem dated, especially given how little he has to say about computer networks. But in general they're a model for the kind of philosophical attention that computers still don't get enough of. --Julian Dibbell
In this book Michael Heim provides the first consistent philosophical basis for critically evaluating the impact of word processing on our use of and ideas about language. This edition includes a new foreword by David Gelernter, a new preface by the author, and an updated bibliography. "Not only important but seminal, on the cutting-edge, furrowing new conceptual territory."-Walter J. Ong, S.J. "A philosopher ponders how the word processor has affected language use and our ideas about it. Heim shrewdly updates a school of thought, associated with such thinkers as Walter Ong, that maintains all changes in writing technology tend to change the way we perceive the world. His argument that word processing leads to fragmented thinking should be addressed and debated."-Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer "The arguments range over all of Western philosophy (and some Eastern as well), from the ancient Greeks to contemporary phenomenology...Everyone who has used a word processor will find much to think about in Heim's ideas."-David Weinberger, Byte "Fascinating, clear, and well-done ...stimulating and challenging."-Don Ihde, Philosophy and Rhetoric