Rediscovering Literacy

I’ve been experimenting lately with aphorisms. Pithy one-liners of the sort favored by writers like La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680). My goal was to turn a relatively big idea, the sort I would normally turn into a 4000-word post, into a one-liner. After many failed attempts over the last few months, a few weeks ago, I finally managed to craft one I was happy with:

Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

Many hours of thought went into this 11-word candidate for eternal quotability. When I was done, I was tempted to immediately unpack it in a longer essay, but then I realized that that would defeat the purpose. Maxims and aphorisms are about more than terseness in the face of expensive writing technology. They are about basic training in literacy. The aphorism above is possibly the most literate thing I have ever written. By stronger criteria I’ll get to, it might even be the only literate thing I’ve ever written, which means I’ve been illiterate until now.

This post isn’t about the aphorism itself (I’ll leave you to play with it), but about literacy.

I used to think that the terseness of  written language through most of history was mostly a result of the high cost and low reliability of writing technologies in pre-modern times. I now think these were secondary issues. I have come to believe that the very word literacy meant something entirely different before around 1890, when print technology became cheap enough to sustain a written form of mass media.

Literacy as Sophistication

Literacy used to be a very subtle concept that meant linguistic sophistication. It used to denote a skill that could be developed to arbitrary levels of refinement through practice.  Literacy meant using mastery over language — both form and content — to sustain a relentless and increasingly sophisticated pursuit of greater meaning. It was about an appreciative, rather than instrumental use of language. Language as a means of seeing rather than as a means of doing.

Reading and writing — the ability to translate language back and forth between oral and written forms — was  a secondary matter. It was a vocational pursuit of limited depth.

The written form itself was merely a convenience for transmitting language across space and time, and a mechanism by which to extend the limits of working memory. It had little to do with language skills per se.

Confusing the two is like confusing the ability to read and write musical notation with musical ability. You can have exceptional musical ability without knowing how to read music. And conversely, you might have no musical ability whatsoever, but still be able to read and write musical notation and translate back and forth between the keyboard and paper. Being able to read and write musical notation really has almost nothing to do with musical ability.

When writing was expensive, conflating the two skills (two-way translation and sophisticated use) was safe and useful. If somebody knew how to read and write, you could safely assume that he or she was also a sophisticated user of language.

It was never considered a necessary condition though, merely a sufficient one. A revealing sign is that many religious messiahs have been illiterate in the reading/writing sense, and have had scribes hanging on their every word, eagerly transcribing away for posterity.

Exposition and Condensation

Before Gutenberg, you demonstrated true literacy not by reading a text out aloud and taking down dictation accurately, but through exposition and condensation.

You were considered literate if you could take a classic verse and expound upon it at length (exposition) and take an ambiguous idea and distill its essence into a terse verbal composition (condensation).

Exposition was more than meaning-extraction. It was a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities.

Condensation was the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words. It was a higher order skill than exposition. All literate people could do some exposition, but only masters could condense well enough to produce new texts considered worthy of being added to the literary tradition.

Exposition and condensation are in fact the fundamental learned behaviors that constitute literacy, not reading and writing. One behavior dissolves densely packed words using the solvent that is the extant oral culture, enriching it, while the other distills the essence into a form that can be transmitted across cultures.

Two literate people in very different different cultures, if they are skilled at exposition, might be able to expand the same maxim (the Golden Rule for instance) into different parables. Conversely, the literary masters of an era can condense stories and philosophies discovered in their own time into culturally portable nuggets.

So the terseness of an enduring maxim is as much about cross-cultural generality as it is about compactness.

The right kind of terseness allows you to accomplish a difficult transmission challenge: transmission across cultures and mental models. Reading and writing by contrast, merely accomplish transmission across time and space. They are much simpler inventions than exposition and condensation. Cultural distance is a far tougher dimension to navigate than spatial and temporal dimensions. By inventing a method to transmit across vast cultural distances, our earliest neolithic ancestors accidentally turned language into a tool for abstract thinking (it must have existed before then as a more rudimentary tool for communication, as in other species that possess more basic forms of language).

So how did we come to focus on reading and writing? Why is it reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic and not exposition, condensation and arithmetic?

Reading and Writing

Today the ability to read and write is ubiquitous in the developed world, and what was once a safe conflation of literacy and transcription ability has become more than meaningless. It has become actively dangerous.

To see why, it is useful to consider the relative status of the spoken word with respect to the written word in pre-modern times.

Before Gutenberg, reading and writing were considered not just secondary skills, but lowly ones, much as typing in the days before personal computing. It is revealing that the first designs for a personal computer at Xerox included one that had no keyboard next to the monitor, but was equipped instead with a dictaphone connection to a secretary who did any typing necessary. It was assumed that executives would not want to do their own typing, but would watch the action scroll by on a monitor.

Reading and writing were for students and scribes. Career scribes were not scholars. Reading and writing skills by themselves represented a vocation, not learning.

Where both the written and spoken word could be used, the latter was in fact preferred. Scholars demonstrated linguistic virtuosity through the spoken rather than the written word. When they gained enough prominence, they acquired students and scribes who would do the lowly work of translation between oral and written forms in exchange for the privilege of learning from a master.

But we haven’t explained why the spoken word was preferred. What has confused us is the red herring of preservation through memorization. If preservation through memorization were the only purpose of oral cultures, they should have all vanished long ago. As McLuhan famously argued, it wasn’t until the Gutenberg revolution that the spoken word was finally dethroned by the written word.

The traditional explanation for the mysterious persistence of oral cultures has been that pre-Gutenberg written-word technologies were either too expensive to be generally accessible, or simply not reliable enough. The characteristic practices of oral cultures, by this theory, evolved to aid accurate preservation through memorization.

This is a bit like saying that people continued to eat fresh foods after refrigeration was invented because early refrigerators were not reliable enough or inexpensive enough to allow everybody to eat frozen foods.

The memorization-for-preservation explanation falls apart when you poke a little. You find that typical oral cultures contain practices that we moderns loosely label “memorization” because we don’t understand what they actually accomplish.

I am going to use Indian oral culture as an example because it is the one I know best, and because it possesses some illuminating extreme features. But I suspect you will find similar unexplained complexity in every oral culture, particularly ones associated with major religions, such as Latin.

Oral Cultural is Not About Memorization

This was a radical realization for me: oral culture is not about preservation-by-memorization. One strong piece of evidence can be found in this Wikipedia description of “memorization” practices in ancient India. Ignore the commentary and pay attention to the actual descriptions of the recitation techniques:

Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity. For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently “proof-read” by comparing the different recited versions. Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally “mesh recitation”) in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order. The recitation thus proceeded as:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; …

In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha (literally “flag recitation”) a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:

word1word2, wordN − 1wordN; word2word3, wordN − 3wordN − 2; ..; wordN − 1wordN, word1word2;

The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally “dense recitation”), took the form:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2word3, word3word2word1, word1word2word3; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3word4, word4word3word2, word2word3word4; …
For fun, I will offer you these recitation forms of my newly-minted maxim.

Original: Civilization is the process of turning the incomprehensible into the arbitrary.

Mesh recitation: civilization is, is civilization, civilization is, the process, process the, the process, of turning, turning of, of turning…

Flag recitation: civilization is, the arbitrary, is the, into the, the process, incomprehensible into, process of, the incomprehensible…

Dense recitation: civilization is, is civilization, civilization is the, the is civilization, civilization is the, is the, the is, is the process, process the is, is the process…

If you are practicing eleven different forms of combinatorial recitation, there is clearly something going on beyond preservation-by-memorization. One piece of evidence is that though the Vedas were accurately preserved, the oral culture also sustained torrents of secondary expository literature that was not accurately preserved. The Mahabharata is an example. Not only was no canonical version preserved, there was no canonical version. The thing grew like a Wikipedia of mythological fan-fiction.

From my own experiences with memorization, the recitation routines seem like extreme overkill. Straightforward repetition, aided by meter and rhyme, is sufficient if preservation-by-memorization (as an alternative to unreliable writing), is the only goal. I memorized two Shakespeare plays that way (though admittedly I have now forgotten most of them).

So what is going on here?

Recitation as Creative Destruction

Once you try this out loud, you realize what is happening. This is microcosmic creative destruction. Try to do this sort of recitation really mindlessly. You will find it extraordinarily difficult. The recitation patterns will force you to pay attention to meaning as well.

Far from being about mindless rote memorization, recitation is about mindful attention to a text.

You’re taking a permutations-and-combinations blender to the words, juxtaposing them in new ways, and actively performing combinatorial processing. You are rigorously testing the strength of every single word choice and ordering decision. You are isolating and foregrounding different elements of the logical content, such as implication, subject-verb and verb-object agreement, and so forth. There is an functional-aesthetic element too. Terseness does not preclude poetry (and therefore, redundancy). In fact it requires it. Despite the compactness of a text, room must be made for various useful symmetries.

If the original has any structural or semantic weaknesses at all, this torture will reveal it. If the original lacks the robustness that poetry brings, it will be added.

Not only does all this not help plain memorization, I claim that it makes it harder. You destabilize the original line in your head and turn it into a word soup. If the original is any way confused or poorly ordered, you will soon end up in a state of doubt about which sequence of words is the correct one.

For many students, practicing recitation must have been mindless tedium, but for a few, it would have catalyzed active consideration and reworking of the underlying ideas, in search of new wisdom. These students must have evolved into new masters, the source of beneficial mutations and crossovers in the cultural memeplexes they were charged with preserving.

Being forced to juggle words like this must have helped cultivate a clear awareness of the distinction between form and content. It must have helped cultivate an appreciation of language as a medium for performance rather than a medium for transmission or preservation. It must have forced students to pay careful attention to precision of word choice in their own compositions. It must have sustained a very mindful linguistic culture.

The analogy to music is again a useful one. The description of the varied forms of recitation sounds less like tedious memorization and more like music students practicing their scales. The only reason that you remember the basic scale (do re mi fa so la te do in Western solfege notation) is that the sequence has the simplest and most complete progression among all the permutations and combinations of the notes. But if you could only sing the one pattern, you wouldn’t be a musician (actually, there is more than an analogy here; music and language are clearly deeply related, but I haven’t thought that idea through).

Being only able to faithfully transcribe between oral and written forms is rather like being only able to sing the default do-re-me sequence. The former can no more be a true measure of literacy than the latter can be a measure of musical ability.

The only way the original can survive such mangling is if it is actually a beautifully dense condensation that has a certain robust memetic stability. At the risk of losing most of you, I think of a carefully composed set of related aphorisms as eigenvectors spanning a space of meaning. It is the space itself, and the competence to explore it, that define a literate comprehension of the text. Not the ability to reproduce or translate between written and oral forms.

We can make a fairly strong claim:

Oral cultures are not just, or even primarily, about quality assurance in transmission. They are primarily about quality assurance in composition, and training in the basic moves of exposition and condensation. 

When you think about it this way, there is no mystery. Oral culture persisted long after the development of writing because it was not about accurate preservation. It was about performance and cultural enactment through exposition and condensation.

The Costs of Gutenberg

And then Gutenberg happened.

The results were not immediately apparent. The old culture of literacy persisted for several centuries. The tipping point came in the 1890s, when printing technology became sufficiently cheap to support mass media (there is a world of difference between ubiquity of bibles and a culture of daily newspapers).

So sometime in the twentieth century, we lost all the subtlety of oral culture, turned our attention to the secondary vocational skills of reading and writing, and turned literacy into a set of mechanical tests.

Today, to be literate simply means that you can read and write mechanically, construct simple grammatical sentences, and use a minimal, basic (and largely instrumental) vocabulary.  We have redefined literacy as a 0-1 condition rather than a skill that can be indefinitely developed.

Gutenberg certainly created a huge positive change. It made the raw materials of literary culture widely accessible. It did not, however, make the basic skills of literacy, exposition and condensation, more ubiquitous.

Instead, a secondary vocational craft from the world of oral cultures (one among many) was turned into the foundation of all education, both high-culture liberal education and the vocational education that anchors popular culture.

The Fall of High Culture

I won’t spend much time on high culture, since the story should be familiar to everybody, even if this framing is unfamiliar.

The following things happened.

  • Instead of condensing new knowledge into wisdom, we began encrypting it into jargon.
  • Exposition as creative performance gave way to critical study as meaning-extraction.
  • The art of condensation turned into the art of light, witty party banter.
  • Conversation turned into correspondence and eventually into citation.
  • Natural philosophy turned into science, and lost its literary character.
  • Interpretation and re-enactment became restricted to narrowly political ends.
  • Poetry was transformed from an intermediate-level literacy skill to a medium for self-indulgence.

The result of these changes on high culture was drastic. Discovery began to outpace interpretation and comprehension. We began to discover more and more, but know less and less. Science seceded from the rest of culture and retreated behind walls of jargon. The impoverished remains outside those walls were re-imagined as a shrill and frozen notion of humanism.

Mathematics and programming, two specialized derivatives of language that I consider part of high culture, retained the characteristics of oral cultures of old, with an emphasis on recombinant manipulation, terseness, generality and portability.

Both are now being threatened (by increasingly capable forms of computing). I will leave that story for another day.

The Fall of Popular Culture

But it is perhaps the transformation of popular culture that has been most dramatic. If you have ever talked to an intelligent and articulate, but illiterate (in the modernist reading-writing sense) member of a popular folk culture that has been relatively well-shielded from modern mass culture, you will understand just how dumb the latter is.

Pre-modern folk cultures are as capable as their high-culture cousins of sustaining linguistic traditions based on exposition and condensation. They are the linguistic minor leagues in relation to the major leagues of high culture, not spectator-cultures.

A pre-modern village does not rely, for intellectual sustenance, on stories brought from imperial capital cities by royal bards. At best, a few imported elements from distant imperial cultures become political integration points within larger grand narratives. I encountered a curious example of this sort of thing in Bali: a minor character in the Mahabharata, Sahadeva, apparently serves as the integration point between the localized version of Hinduism and purely local elements like the Barong and Rangda, which do not appear anywhere in the Mahabharata to my knowledge.

By contrast, modern mass culture is a spectator culture, linguistically speaking. You read stories but you do not necessarily attempt to rewrite them. You watch movies, but you do not attempt to re-enact them as plays that incorporate elements of local culture. The analogy to music is again useful. Before the gramaphone and radio, most families around the world made their own music.

The effects of print, radio and television based mass media were to basically destroy popular literary (but not necessarily written) cultures everywhere. Was it an accident or an act of deliberate cultural violence?

I believe it was an accident that proved so helpful for the industrial world that repairs were never made, like smallpox decimating the ranks of Native Americans.

For the industrial world, exposition and condensation were useless skills in the labor force. The world needed workers who could follow instructions: texts with one instrumental meaning instead of many appreciative meanings:

  •  Turn on Switch A.
  • Watch for the green light to come on.
  • Then push the lever. 

As the finely differentiated universe of local folk cultures was gradually replaced by a handful of mass, popular cultures, ordinary citizens lost their locally enacted linguistic cultures, and began to feed passively on mass-produced words. In the process, they also lost the basic skills of literacy: exposition and condensation, and partially regressed to pre-Neolithic levels of linguistic sophistication, where language sustains social interaction and communication, but not critical, abstract thought.

What does this world look like?

Can the Gollum Speak?

I previously proposed the Gollum as an archetype of an ordinary person turned into a ghost by consumer culture.  What I am talking about here is the linguistic aspect of that transformation.

If you consider the decline of popular literary culture and its replacement by mass culture a sort of “consumerization of language,” you have to ask, can highly gollumized people use language in a literate way at all?

The Gollum can read, write and repeat, but I’ve slowly concluded that it cannot actually think with language. And not because it isn’t smart, but because it has been “educated.”

Everywhere around me I find examples of written and spoken language that I find bizarrely Frankenstein-monster like. Clumsy constructions based on borrowed parts, and rudely assembled (PR pitches and resume cover letters are great examples of modern Frankenstein writing).

The language of the true Gollum is a language of phrases borrowed and repeated but never quite understood.

Words and phrases turn into mechanical incantations that evoke predictable responses from similarly educated minds. Yes there is meaning here, but it is not precise meaning in the sense of a true literary culture. Instead it is a vague fog of sentiment and intention that shrouds every spoken word. It is more expressive than the vocalizations of some of our animal cousins, but not by  much.

Curiously, I find the language of illiterate (reading-writing sense) to usually be much clearer. When I listen to some educated people talk, I get the curious feeling that the words don’t actually matter. That it is all a behaviorist game of aversion and attraction and basic affect overlaid on the workings of a mechanical process. That mechanical process is enacted by instrumental meaning-machines manufactured in schools to generate, and respond appropriately to, a narrow class of linguistic stimuli without actually understanding anything.

When I am in a public space dominated by mass culture and its native inhabitants, such as a mall, I feel like I am surrounded by philosophical zombies.  Yes, they talk and listen, but it is not clear to me that what they are using is language.

And it isn’t just the I’m like, duh, and she’s like uh-oh crowd that I am talking about. I am including here the swarms of barely-literate (in the thinking sense) liberal arts graduates who can read and write phrases like always-already and dead-white-male (why not already-always or deceased-European man? I suspect Derrida and Foucault could tell you, but none of the millions who parrot them could).

This might sound like engineering elitism, but I find that the only large classes of people who appear to actually think in clearly literate ways today are mathematicians and programmers. But they typically only do so in very narrow domains.

To learn to think with language, to become literate in the sense of linguistically sophisticated, you must work hard to unlearn everything built on the foundation of literacy-as-reading-and-writing.

Because modern education is not designed to produce literate people. It is designed to produce programmable people. And this programmability requires less real literacy with every passing year. Today, genuinely literate reading and writing are specialized arts. Increasingly, even narrowly instrumental read-write literacy is becoming unnecessary (computers can do both very well).

These are not stupid people. You only have to listen to a child delightedly reciting supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or indulging in other childish forms of word-play to realize that raw skill with language is a native capability in the human brain. It must be repressed by industrial education since it seeks natural expression.

So these are not stupid people. These are merely ordinary people who have been lobotomized via the consumerization of language, delivered via modern education.

We dimly realize that we have lost something. But appreciation for the sophistication of oral cultures mostly manifests itself as mindless reverence for traditional wisdom. We look back at the works of ancients and deep down, wonder if humans have gotten fundamentally stupider over the centuries.

We haven’t. We’ve just had some crucial meme-processing software removed from our brains.

Towards a Literacy Renaissance

This is one of the few subjects about which I am not a pessimist. I believe that something strange is happening. Genuine literacy is seeing a precarious rebirth.

The best of today’s tweets seem to rise above the level of mere bon mots (“gamification is the high-fructose corn syrup of user engagement”) and achieve some of the cryptic depth of esoteric verse forms of earlier ages.

The recombinant madness that is the fate of a new piece of Internet content, as it travels, has some of the characteristics of the deliberate forms of recombinant recitation practiced by oral culture.

The comments section of any half-decent blog is a meaning factory.

Sites like are sustaining basic literacy skills.

The best of today’s stand-up comics are preserving ancient wordplay skills.

But something is still missing: the idea that literacy is a cultivable skill. That dense, terse thoughts are not just serendipitous finds on the discursive journeys of our brains, but the product of learnable exposition and condensation skills.

I suppose paying attention to these things, and actually attempting to work with archaic forms like maxims and aphorisms in 2012 is something of a quixotic undertaking. When you can store a terbayte of information (about 130,000 books, or about 50% larger than a typical local public library) on a single hard-disk words can seem cheap.

But try reading some La Rochefoucauld, or even late hold outs like Oliver Wendell Holmes and J. B. S. Haldane, and you begin to understand what literacy is really about. The cost of words is not the cost of storing them or distributing, but the cost of producing them. Words are cheap today because we put little effort into their production, not because we can store and transmit as much as we like.

It is as yet too early to declare a literacy renaissance, but one can hope.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Long live the aphorism! Aphorisms are philosophy with brevity.

    For being so short, it’s amazing how much work can go into editing aphorisms (I have a collection myself). It’s also amazing that so much garbage can be hidden by flowery language.

  2. You have now shaken my confidence in the quality of the emails I have sent you….

  3. James Babcock says

    I agree with this, but would add that there are other important linguistic subskills which you have not named, both known and undiscovered. Exposition and condensation both reduce (not uniquely) to smaller skills.

    • Yes, I was focusing on those two because they are the fundamental skills (or skill buckets if you like) corresponding to reading and writing in the reductive, industrial definition of literacy.

  4. Prakash says

    There is no real evolutionary imperative left to being or becoming a more well rounded human being. Cogs plugged into the industrial machine do really well for themselves in terms of anything that the hindbrain really wants – status, power, wealth, sex, relationships. That, I believe, is the reason behind the fall of literacy as you define it.

    Interestingly, please note that tests for management institutes still check for reading comprehension and written essays, which use condensation and exposition skills.

    • Cogs plugged into the industrial machine do really well for themselves in terms of anything that the hindbrain really wants – status, power, wealth, sex, relationships.

      Good point. I think this is where the Gollum metaphor comes in. Human beings interact with industrial civilization through information processes and industrial civilization has, through a sort of Darwinian process, become incredibly good at hacking human motivations to optimize the outcomes of its interactions with human beings (aggregated over many millions of human beings). This obviously includes Venkat’s original Gollum examples like HFCS and heroin, but I think it also includes hacking the motivations of, for example, food engineers who can be “conned” into making bad food by the money and status involved in such a job. I was calling these guys “Sarumans” rather than “Gollums” but your comment made me realize that there’s no substantial difference between hacking a human being’s desire for sugar and hacking a human being’s desire for status.

  5. I would argue that the practice of Spaced Repetition (e.g. with flashcard software like Anki, Mnemosyne, or SuperMemo) bears some similarities to processes described in this post. Could such a practice take back what was lost with Gutenberg? I think so.

    The process of converting a source text into spaced repetition flashcards, if it is done effectively as described by Piotr Wozniak, involves a considerable deal of deconstruction and analysis of language. Lots of information must be deconstructed and made into many different precise flashcards with few words for each individual card. In a way, each card represents a cause and effect relationship, a small cog in the greater working body of language/knowledge.

    The practice of actively producing language with flashcards may also, as Venkatesh says, “cultivate an appreciation of language as a medium for performance.” One does one’s SRS flashcard reviews every day for the long-term benefit. It becomes a medium for treating language as “a skill that can be indefinitely developed,” with enhanced support from the memory algorithms built into the software.

    Not coincidentally, some of the first uses of spaced repetition flashcard software, and to this day some of the most popular uses, were for learning computer programming–the linguistic derivative found in “high culture” as Venkatesh says. The method is particularly useful for such endeavors…or so I read.

    Either way, spaced repetition when done correctly involves thought processes characterized by active deconstruction and use of language, not simply mindless exposure and repetition. The only thing it significantly lacks that comes to mind is a process of communal engagement and narrative thinking/creation.

  6. and also…thank you venkatesh for taking the time to write this insightful post.

  7. “To learn to think with language, to become literate in the sense of linguistically sophisticated, you must work hard to unlearn everything built on the foundation of literacy-as-reading-and-writing.”

    Over several years of high school English class in New Zealand we had ‘Statement, Example, eXplanation’ (with the accompanying acronym S.E.X., how’s that for an awesome mnemonic) drilled into us as the ‘correct’ sequence to use in essay writing, without actually understanding anything of tension and resolution, expansion and compactification.

    It took me until my final years of university to begin to unlearn this and actually understand what I was writing – I can only wonder how many people in my city today are working in business or as civil servants, still using the same old techniques.

  8. Games have the potential to combine the alacrity of post-printing-press, language-as-one-dimensional-signal with the recombinant meaning-search algorithm of the deep literacy you describe.

    By the way I just spend a week in Isreal designing some language games for this company:

    I think ESL speakers are more canny on the meaning of the English language than your average Yalee.

    • Great minds think alike :) Some friends and I are designing a language game now for the BSE email list.

  9. This post moved me to abandon lethargy and sponsor Ribbonfarm (for the second time). Thanks.

    It was difficult for me to read through this, at times: the neuronal fireworks it provoked were hard to see past. In my muddled, illiterate mind, one of the many thoughts that rocketed past my field of perception was “hmmm… Condensation, exposition, re-combination, etc. I wonder what the relationship of all that is to Shannon, compression, encryption, that sort of thing…”

    • Shannon might guess that the recitation practices were attempts at preserving the original form of the piece — because Shannon showed that redundancy provides the means for error correction. This explains the assumption that the purpose of these practices is faithful reproduction of the text. Largely because of Shannon, redundancy is often perceived as a means of error correction.

      I think Venkat is arguing almost the opposite, that the recitations are more of a stress test for the piece. The recitations cause badly-written pieces to fall apart, and so only the most robust pieces are passed along. It’s more like Darwinian evolution than information theory.

      Shannon’s stuff gets applied to linguistics at a lower level than this. When Venkat talks about “condensation,” what’s being condensed is meaning or semantics. The relationship between semantics and Shannon’s work has never been entirely clear because we have no good theory of semantics; Shannon himself and many of his contemporaries wrote about how Shannon’s work addresses the technical problems of communication while completely ignoring the deeper, more mysterious question of semantics.

      So if there is a relationship between Shannon’s work and literacy in Venkat’s sense, then it is a very deep, mysterious relationship that no one has yet worked out even in outline. Very interesting question, though.

      • The condensation in the from of a short aphorism is processed beyond the preservation of information. It is not a faithful transmission in the M2M sense. It can’t also mapped easily on a meaning using a functor between a category of linguistic utterances and some domain of semantic values.

        So I would take the operational condensation/exposition pair at face value and say that’s what it is about. Unlike homomorphic machine translation/compilation you would expect the results not to be stable i.e. they are infinitely context dependent, may change from moment to moment and person to person. You always get a different text or utterance.

        From an engineering point of view it is a total mess, not a mystery. Condensation/exposition cannot really put to work and has no well defined function. It is linguist luxury, a source of misunderstandings, rhetoric allusions and mystifications. However it has some economical weight. It is about advertising and selling meaning. Let’s say someone doesn’t speak English at all and stumbles over It needs only a very small “condensed” probe of the blog to understand to not understand. It doesn’t require a lengthy exposition. The possible reader strolls on and scans other sites for enjoyment. So if the condensation or abstract isn’t promising we don’t expect the opposite from the exposition. True linguistic sophistication may act on a meta-level even. You do not only get a hook but within the hook you can guess the expertise and the sophistication of the exposition.

        • From an engineering point of view it is a total mess, not a mystery.

          I disagree for reasons that are essentially irrelevant to the discussion.

  10. Condensation faces the same hard limits that all data compression does. It will be lossy, lossless, or need to use pointers to data assumed to be shared.

    Lossy is form over function. Scratch the surface, and the sentiment is either trivial or not generally true. Political soundbites are lossy. So are many aphorisms and ‘wisdoms’, both ancient and modern.

    Lossless is what Einstein must have meant when he said that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. It has limited scope for novel, complex, or illegible phenomena.

    The most interesting (and hardest) case is the use of pointers. A good haiku for the right audience is an easy example. [Musical composition could also probably be seen as a series of pointers to emotional states, which together produce a complex cocktail of joy and fear and longing and defiance.] Well-done, these could link entire families of related ideas together, and with said families unlikely to be exactly identical between originator and recipient, some useful mutations of ideas could be introduced (with natural selection on further retransmission?). The downside is that pointers rely on there being some commonality. Far from being cross-cultural, their lossless form is highly culture-depndent and somewhat inward looking. They are riffs, rather than revolutions.

    All three take a lot of effort to create, and the last two take a lot of effort to unpack as well. I doubt that there was a time in history when a large number of people were capable or motivated enough to do it. So, perhaps it is not that we have lost literacy, but that we have not increased it the way we thought we had.

    • Great breakdown except for one missing element: logical closure. If I give you:



      You can fill in the blank. It is lossless but isn’t completed through reference. Not quite sure what to call this. But it was used a lot in both music (Bach’s “musical offerings”) and aphorisms (compact mathematical theorem statements in verse form containing only tiny hints for proof reconstruction).

      I agree the skill was probably never commonplace, but I do think it was relatively more common before than today.

      • Senthil Gandhi says

        The original classification by aepxc needs some refactoring. There are only two types of compression schemes, lossy and its complement (lossless). Holding a pointer to shared data that is assumed or is also pass along is just one way to implement either a lossy or a lossless compression scheme. If you follow this classification, it is clear that venkats scheme is just one more way of implanting a lossless compression (namely a mathematical formulae). Note that unless the scheme is supplied as well, it can only be considered as encryption and not compression as far as the modern day engineering meaning of those words are concerned. So in this scheme, bachs work is an encryption which incidentally compressed as well. ( It is a particularly bad encryption since most statistics based code breaking software will immediately discover the scheme. It is encryption nevertheless. An interesting side note: If you compress after encryption you won’t get any gains if your encryption system was any good, since the purpose of encryption is to completely drain out your data of all its original internal structure. Because this structure is what might give it away).

        Regarding Venkats point 2, about the skill being more commonplace before today. I would like propose a different view. The population of the world was about 350million at 1350AD. This is about 20 times less people than today. So suppose only 1 in 5 people were literate during those times. That is 70 million people. To hit that level of literacy, we only need 1 in 100 people to be literate. This is an easy target to hit. Compared to our ancestors, we are like this strange alien race, which has strength in numbers, and _only_ in numbers. :)

  11. Alan Martin says

    “For brevity is very good, Where we are, or are not understood.” – Samuel Butler, Hudibras

    • Eric Farnsworth says

      I was all ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ but this is way cooler.

  12. I can only concur with your conclusion of the state of (il)literacy today. I am intelligent and well-educated, and I can certainly read & write, but I find it hard to turn my thoughts into writing or express the ideas I’ve read about. So how do I become literate?

  13. First of all, a prediction: the core idea of this post will form a part of your third book (if not second).

    Second, a wish: some scholar or expert commenter should either endorse the brilliance and originality of your ideas above or provide a solid counterview.

    Floating in my head right now are various thought-ticklers from two books and hence I see connections with them.

    1. Just finished reading ‘The Element’ by Sir Ken Robinson, which comprehensively covers the strengths approach and takes it further. It adds the third dimension of ‘opportunity’ to ‘aptitude’ and ‘passion’.

    Vocabulary is a basic language skill while exposition and condensation involves understanding, assimilation, reflection and of course, a richer vocabulary and language skills. Some traits (talent themes) make people want to and adept at playing with concepts and expressing them in original ways. Some people may have intelligences in other areas.

    2. Am somewhere in the second half of ‘Tempo’. I wonder if a higher ability of exposition and condensation would make somebody form and stick too early to a key organizing insight, or, would it enable and encourage more flexible exploration and therefore arrive at a better cheap trick.

    P.S. A example of ghana patha (of Gayatri mantra) can be heard at

    • Thanks for the link. I’ve never actually heard a ghana-patha recitation, so this was very interesting.

      Re: premature cheap trick… the test of that is whether or not the separation event succeeds. Though that’s only part of the story (luck plays a role after all).

      I agree that strengths should play a role. I suspect we would find other examples of illiteracy by industrialization in other strength areas (craft skill is an obvious one).

      • Incidentally that recital is part of a series of audio CDs titled ‘Sacred Chants’ from Kosmic Music. Most of the chants are by a female chorus (itself unusual) with Western and modern instrumental music, and the singers in some of the volumes are Christians. Even without any religious affiliation these versions of selected shloka-songs are very nice to hear–some soothing, some energetic and peppy.

  14. Is there any possibility that various pathas(ghan,dhwaja,jata) preserved the correct word and its vibhakti(hope i am using the right word here) because of Sandhi rules that apply between two(or more) words?

    I hope the question is clear.If it is not forget it.

    • You seem to know more than me here. I am afraid I don’t know much beyond the Wikipedia excerpt.

  15. “You can have exceptional musical ability without knowing how to read music. And conversely, you might have no musical ability whatsoever, but still be able to read and write musical notation and translate back and forth between the keyboard and paper.”

    I’d call the basic skill “literacy”, and the (inate and/or practiced) talent “eloquence” or maybe rhetoric. The French have “esprit” which can be translated as “wit”, but doesn’t necessarily have the humorous connotation. Finding the ‘mot juste’ is the talent I think you’re talking about.

    Redefining literacy (or splitting its definition into old combo-literacy and new basic and advanced literacies) seems unnecessarily complicated.

  16. Reading further, I see you use “transcription” and “literacy”. And there may in fact be political/rhetorical value in demeaning what is commonly called “literacy” to “transcription”, and elevating the word “literacy” to the higher order skills. So feel free to delete both of my comments.

    • I’ll leave it as is. The comments do foreground a concern.

      My speculative thesis is that literacy meant what I am using it to mean in this piece (basically, “thinking with language”). It got reductively redefined as “reading and writing” by 1890, so I am kinda resurrecting an older definition rather than redefining. The older sense still persists in some usages (“The Minoans were a highly literate society”… the qualifier highly establishes that a continuous variable rather than 0/1 idea is at work, and such constructs are usually used to talk about the existence of scholastic cultures rather than just writing).

  17. Alexander Boland says

    A couple notes:

    In “Antifragility”, Taleb talks about “oral tradition” as being anti-fragile (with its fragile counterpart being “e-books”), you probably hit the nail on the head as to why. But I digress.

    What you’re talking about seems to be the meaning of “critical thinking.” But the cringeworthy fact is that the word “critical thinking” is now just a buzzword (for lack of a better word.)

    About stimulus-response linguistics, I had an argument that touches on the nature of this. I was talking about (please forgive the cliche) the problems of consumerism, and I got the response that if that ethos were to stop there would be “no economy.”

    In this instance, the concept of “economy” was neutered from any and all narrative contexts that define its substance, and so it was left as a syllogism with a single value attached to it. The basic nature of this being that most educated people say “but X because Y”, having actually turned X and Y into stand-alone conceptual entities.

    Then there are the times we superficially get the demand “define X”. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be clear in what we’re communicating (and there are definitely times where a definition is an order), but sometimes a concept is an open-ended narrative that connects to consequences that are easier to understand when seen as an interlocking process. Above all, we sometimes have to understand meaning through the process of reading, such as with Derrida or Wittgenstein; the biggest problem with analytic philosophy is that unlike science, it’s simultaneously dealing with what I’ll call “background semantics” and “foreground semantics” simultaneously.

    The short version of those few paragraphs is that sometimes an educated person says “breaking windows is good for the economy because it puts people to work” and all you want to do is yell “But what does that actually *mean*!?”

    • Alexander Boland says

      Oops, forgot something on that “analytic philosophy” paragraph:

      In essence, analytic philosophy tries to filter out all process and leave only data. The problem is that you can’t do that, due to the presence of framing, and so by leaving out paradox, storytelling, poetry, obscurity, etc. you’re not getting at the “heart” of anything (whatever that means to people.)

      This is also why it’s irritating to hear self-proclaimed “empirical” people criticize metaphor of any kind as if it were a monster that came to poison our collective epistemology.

    • What you’re talking about seems to be the meaning of “critical thinking.” But the cringeworthy fact is that the word “critical thinking” is now just a buzzword (for lack of a better word.)

      It became a buzzword before I was even born.

      • Alexander Boland says

        I cannot deny that. On the other hand, I think there is a fundamental skill of not automatically responding to distilled syllogisms. Unless the field is math, a syllogism’s potential transformations are based on some sort of cultural stimulus-response. The thing I so hesitantly call “critical thinking” is the ability to not let this dictate your comprehension.

        But all of this that I wrote is more of a tangent than I initially thought. I need to re-read this post and the comments thread.

  18. Venkat, I have only recently discovered you and your writings. I have been riveted. This is brilliant work and clearly what you should be doing. This particular analysis was no exception, and I have already recommended it to numerous friends as a ‘must read’.

    I do have one disagreement big enough that I feel I should address it. It is in response to the overall, historical picture you draw with the piece.

    From my take on it, what you are implying is that following Gutenberg we traded a society full of literate, philosophical types (using “literate” in the deep sense in which you use it, defined as condensation and exposition), for a society full of illiterate (or, only “literate” in the now-customary, shallow sense of knowing how to read and write) button-pushers.

    While this may be true in the upper classes, where deep-literacy may have ebbed and become degraded in the wake of the spread of the modern educational paradigm with its emphasis on shallow-literacy (deep-illiteracy), what actually seems to have happened underneath the upper class is the rise of a middle and poor class shallow-literacy where before there was simply abject illiteracy (illiteracy in both the deep and shallow senses). This still seems like progress of a kind worth calling “progress”, as opposed to regression.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think this correction damages what you are ultimately driving at: that it is time for the classes below the upper classes (or all the classes) to invest their energy on something that looks more like the deep-literacy practiced much more broadly by the upper classes of the past, probably using the post-Gutenberg shallow-literacy as a foundation. I bring this up only because I think it is important to get the broad details of the long-term historical view right.

    Perhaps my reading this implication into your piece, however, was a misread. I confess that, as fascinating as I found the piece, I do not presently have time to read it again to determine if my criticism is poorly founded. You, being the piece’s author, can probably do so more quickly that I can reread it.


    • I don’t quite agree with your hypothesis. I think the poor classes were always literate in the sense of being stewards of deeper traditions of folklore (as I say towards the end). Modernity killed or weakened those traditions. The middle classes arise and fall periodically in history and I think almost by definition, the middle classes are illiterate in the deep sense, since their culture is defined by spectatorship of the rich classes. See Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class for more (it’s about the rich, but has interesting related commentary about the middle classes which emerge to wait on the rich rather than work for them as labor).

      But overall I didn’t really get at class and literacy here. That’s worth a separate post I guess.

  19. This is your first post that made me feel justified in heartily recommending your blog to my colleagues (who are mostly from the Singularity Institute and to a lesser extent LessWrong). Yours is the only non-technical blog I’ve found thus far that I feel merits such an unqualified recommendation. I’m perturbed that there aren’t more people doing this kind of, hm, “literate” cultural analysis;—or perhaps there are, but with a conceptual system I don’t understand, or in a community I haven’t heard of?

    On that note, (and perhaps this should have gone in an email where it doesn’t take up comment-section-space?): You mentioned Foucault and Derrida: do you have any advice, perhaps in a previous blog post or comment, on where to begin digging into the post-structuralist/postmodernist constellation of perspectives? I suppose I’m looking for some well-developed hybrid of social psychology and memetics that is hindered neither by (respectively) the necessity of statistical support, nor sometimes-unmotivated analogies to garden-variety Darwinian selection.

    On an unrelated note, I believe you have a general outlook similar to Nick Szabo’s. You might want to check out his blog at , polished essays at His intellectual background is similar to yours—lawyer, financial adviser, programmer, amateur historian—and his interests are too, but he tends to focus more on economics and especially the history of institutions. (I think anyone who explains the value of tradition by reference to algorithmic information theory is a person worth checking out.)

    • My background is in engineering, not law. Makes for a big difference I think. Several SingInst and LessWrong types read this blog I believe. So long as you/they skirt around some basic philosophical differences, some limited cross-pollination is possible I suppose. But I’d expect truly dedicated LessWrongers to abandon ribbonfarm at some point, where the dissonances become not worth resolving.

      I haven’t read any postmodernist or poststructuralist core works in the original. I’ve read a scattering of things whose style is inspired by those works, and a couple of irreverent guides like this one:

      Call me arrogant, but that’s one of the few areas of study where I feel comfortable that I’ve ‘got their number’ and estimated the potential value without actually reading them in any depth. It’s like you get the concept of counting 1, 2, 3… without ever going past about 100.

      So I can’t recommend any works. More to the point, I don’t really recommend devoting much effort there. There are far more fertile and less dangerous ways to develop your thinking in the ways that the pomo/postu traditions attempt to. Because that’s what it is, a style of thinking. And IMO, an over-rated style (but not vacuous like some critics claim… it has substance) that is far more likely to tempt people into self-important ideological posturing than lead them to better thinking.

      Development of thinking skills is a branch-and-bound game and this is a branch that for now, I’ve decided is not worth exploring more. Actually, so are LessWrong style Bayesian rationalism and Taleb/Cowen style radical empiricism.

      The three together sort of negatively define my own preferred thinking style, where at least I personally find the greatest returns-to-efforts ratio. I sometimes reinvent wheels already invented by these styles, and make mistakes that these styles are relatively immune to, but overall, I think I’ve picked the right branch to go down. I suppose the closest positive characterization of this branch is what Feyerabend called “methodological anarchy” and I call “/etc”

  20. Excellent exposition piece. My only observation, as a lawyer who studied rhetoric as an undergrad, is that you (society) gets what you pays for. By that, I mean that the sort of literacy you uphold was the fruit of professional Roman and Greek rhetors and Irish fili and bards (in the Western tradition). They practiced their craft because they were paid, and paid well, to do it.

    Now, we pay lawyers like my confreres to obfuscate (with jargon) or clarify in very precise ways in service of binding or loosing the application of various laws. The client won’t pay for exposition or condensation.

    Or we reward hip-hop artists with millions of dollars for their own particular brand of rhyming jargon.

    Branding may be the last area where condensation occurs in an intentional way, as advertising seeks to pack sound bites with dense layers of meaning, emotion and meme-resonance through purposeful construction. And as anyone who’s watched the Superbowl knows, advertising pays big.

    I won’t credit Twitter with the renaissance of condesation literacy until tweets are routinely compensated for their content rather than serving as the background for advertising or whatever other monetization vehicle Twitter ends up spawning.

    • Edit: In my haste, I condensed “condensation” in the last para.

    • Now, we pay lawyers like my confreres to obfuscate (with jargon) or clarify in very precise ways in service of binding or loosing the application of various laws. The client won’t pay for exposition or condensation.

      Same in the technical disciplines. The literary medium of the “engineering elite” is the technical specification – something Venkat seems to like reading more than me for whom this is daily business – and those vary from the pedantic to the ambiguous.

      In the last couple of months I experienced that companies which have written technical specs and hold their authority become confused about their content and intent themselves. The original author left or is unavailable and the successors lost overview and are in the same messy situation as we are but cannot openly admit it. So we get contradicting answers to our questions. This is both annoying and funny, a living example of the “pathologies of the corporate organization”.

      Of course the situation with program code is in no way better. I wonder if coding is our contemporary “folk tales”, created and tweaked by a collective author? It is always suspected to suffer from its own entropy and exists in an eternal crisis which causes surprisingly few consequences relative to the amount of code and its dependencies. We figure out trails of stable use and stick with them unless a system is replaced by another one which exists on a slightly higher level for a couple of use cases and the game is restarted. Hackers are those who find bugs and use cases outside of the those trails.

    • Or we reward hip-hop artists with millions of dollars for their own particular brand of rhyming jargon.
      Actually, hip-hop is a great example of an incredibly “literate” (in the pre-1890’s sense) folk culture that developed entirely within living memory. In the 70’s the MCs did not rap much and literally performed roles as “masters of ceremony”, pumping up the crowd for the real show (the DJs). The practice of hip-hop MCing quickly accreted a pretty stable repertoire of verbal forms (“and ya don’t stop,” “wave your hands in the air,” etc.), fluency in which is the minimal skill set for becoming an MC. Being a master involves breaking the rules behind this repertoire in interesting ways and engaging in more ambitious forms of wordplay.

      That’s not to say all hip-hop is literate, but some of it is in precisely the ways Venkat describes here. Maybe MCs are our modern equivalent of the Greek rhetors.

      • Well, I would certainly agree that many of the “stable repetoire of verbal forms” you reference for hip-hop bear a similar rhetorical value to the Homeric epithet. See
        Epithets were essentially a figure of speech that allowed the extended oral exposition of a core event (battle, wedding feast, etc.), so that the storyteller could fit the performance to the length of the occassion for the performance.
        It would be a mistake to assume that because the content of hip-hop is low brow (drugs, hos, crime and the po-po, etc.) that the means of transmission is also somehow base.

  21. I was curious about the about this negative comparison of popular culture with the past. If anyone knows about more detailed notes on this, it would be nice to have links. The claim seems to be that it has become less diverse and that a smaller proportion of people are in a narrator/creator/editor role.
    I was confused by the Bali example, since it would be surprising if a culture of that size didn’t have its own narrative variations which should be true even tody. But from anecdotal experience(not Bali specifically), it is my impression that there were more individual narrative traditions at smaller levels (town/village) as compared to the present day.

    The second aspect seems more clear. Larry Lessig, incidentally, also talks about this in intros to his copyright talks.

    About the eigenvector reference, I didn’t understand what the linear map(whose eigenvectors you are taking) refers to? Or do you just mean that the text is a superposition of the basic elements inside meaning space?

  22. I love where you are going with this. Have you read “Hamlet’s Mill”? An essential counterpart to the Mcluhan|McKenna|Joyce (what is it with the Celts and language? Must have something to do with the bards) explorations of language.

    “Hamlet’s Mill” is an analysis of the technical language of myth (and how its codes relates to astronomy) – and reveals that myth is programming. I think you will find it fascinating…

  23. Venkat,

    I read your work regularly but do not comment regularly, I’m afraid due to external constraints. But I’ve become a supporter – not specifically for the content of this article, but for your overall content. I particularly enjoyed your map you published on the Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region and am particularly stunned by the space in the noosphere (blogosphere) that we both occupy – very similar, but arrived at independently. Interesting, coincidental, or simply Google’s decision that we fall into user profile #15876, but curious nonetheless.
    Reading this post makes me lament what was lost – I dismissed poetry when I was younger as an effete, self-indulgent art form, but now see it as a vehicle to craft great meaning (and multiple layers) and wish I had the time or wherewithal to explore it. The loss of high culture seems to me most lamentable, particularly with its vulgar and venal replacement; Fukuyama’s Economic Man. With our society’s obsession with productivity and efficiency (over resilience and assumedly anti-fragility – haven’t read Taleb’s book yet) we are evolving happily towards H.G. Well’s Moorlocks – technically minded barbarians in perpetual servitude to machines/institutions/corporations/whatever.
    In the 80’s-90’s, in the music and video fields, first with the sampler and then cheap video processing hardware, with there was an explosion of exposition and condensation in the electronic music/music video scene, with musical motifs first borrowed, then abjectly stolen, then modified and finally re-created as a new work on its own right, which would then undergo a similar cycle. Changes to the copyright laws squashed this cycle which was starting to produce some interesting results in the early 90’s. (c.f. negativland) A derivative style was squashed in the efforts to maintain mass culture. Fortunately, long tail effects seem to be fragmenting that hopelessly as there are fewer and fewer ties to mass culture as we all fractionate to our own self-reinforcing islands in the net.
    In a world of sound bites and aggressive video editing, perhaps it is smarter for one to focus on the behaviorist game of aversion and attraction – after all, it isn’t what you say, its what people hear. And in a world without true literacy, moving the 999/1000 to respond in an expected way to what is said is the point of the exercise. That one outlier can be ignored – no-one will listen to him (or her) anyway.
    Good stuff. Keep writing.

  24. Warning: I am not technical, nor am I an academic.

    I’m going to tell you about two things that I’ve been doing on a regular basis that I feel are increasing my “literacy” as defined by you in this post.

    1) Speaking at Toastmasters. I find that coming up with something compelling, provocative, informative, inspiring, wise, entertaining, and emotional (not necessarily in the same speech, of course), and saying it to a group of people in six to eight minutes, makes me more literate. It is very hard. It’s hard to expand upon one idea, and it’s hard to take a bunch of ideas and condense them. It’s hard to edit. It’s hard to simplify. Being good in six minutes is way more difficult that it seems if you’ve never tried it.

    2) Making up stories for my three year-old daughter using a series of illustrated cards. The set we have is from a company called eeBoo. They are called, “Tell Me a Story – Fairy Tale Mix up.” Telling a good story with these cards (no matter how many of them I use, and no matter the order) is one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. I’m 37 and have always considered myself to be moderately creative. I now realize that my creativity is lacking in a major way, and I can appreciate how the difficulty of packing meaning into pictures, aphorisms, poems, etc. while telling these stories. We have been spoon-fed stories and characters for so long, that breaking away from our “go-to’s” is painful. I would challenge anyone to use these cards with their kids. You will get more out of the experience than they will.

    Thanks, Venkat. Super post!

    • I will echo the value of Toastmasters, or any exercise that places a time constraint on the exposition of an idea. One of the most valuable classes I took was a history of philosophy class where the grade was based entirely on a weekly series of essays limited to no more than 200 words. Trying to condense the treatment of a philosophical idea from the perspective of a single philospher in the space of less than a typewritten page is surprisingly difficult, but great training.

  25. Excellent ideas. As a grad student in translation studies, I’d like to point out a few things about “the fall of high culture.”

    “Instead of condensing new knowledge into wisdom, we began encrypting it into jargon.”
    Arguably, this was happening long before the printing press. Scribes often made plenty of mistakes when transcribing texts or speeches. These “errors,” which often resulted in texts that sounded like jargon, were the result of various factors, including lack of familiarity with the subject, lack of spelling conventions, lack of grammatical/linguistic knowledge (which I know you might object to), speculation about the ideas being transcribed, or simple misunderstandings.

    “Exposition as creative performance gave way to critical study as meaning-extraction.”
    In the history of translation at least, the idea of “meaning extraction” or “meaning transfer” also predates the printing press. Augustine in the 6th century was already talking about signs and the signified, which was a notion revisited more than 1000 years later by the linguist Saussure and his followers, who treated language as a tool providing a common means of referring to things. But it is interesting to note that, in Europe, talk of “meaning transfer” in translation did erupt right after the printing press came around.

    “Natural philosophy turned into science, and lost its literary character.”
    Ever read Darwin?

    “Interpretation and re-enactment became restricted to narrowly political ends.”
    I think this is a bit too sweeping a generalization, although an interesting one. In any case, interpretation and translation were used for political ends long before the printing press. Alfred the Great of Wessex in the 9th century used translation and literature to secure political goals (I just completed some research on this). The old story of the Septuagint also indicates that translation was a type of political exchange.

  26. frenche says

    it´s a great work

  27. The “hardest problem of science” the origin of language

  28. Tempus fidgets.

  29. Kevin Murray says

    I’m always interested to read someone else explicate an idea that I’ve had floating around for awhile but which was beyond my ability at the time to actually explain (Thank you Mr. Polanyi). It triggered a few thoughts which I felt like sharing. I was reminded of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, maybe it’s not connected, since I think I’ll need to read it a few more times to assimilate the ideas, but it came to mind.

    I also recalled a conversation with an old roommate while I was slogging through his copy of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He commented that Lawrence wrote in a very British manner, and that every hundred pages or so there would be one idea worth remembering, but that one idea was so fantastic that it made the hundred pages worth it. I guess you’d say the expositional element is there, though outside maybe Mao the condensation element is missing.

    Another thought was remembering both my reading of Clausewitz’s On War and my experience of the Air Force’s attempt to distill his writings into something to pass on to cadets. The Air Force managed to turn his concept of Economy of Force on its head. Instead of the original idea of using all resources to their maximum utility, it became using the least amount necessary to get the job done.

    I wonder if the loss of a common education (classics, Greek and Roman history/philosophy, etc as a Western example) also factors in to some extent. It might provide a common set of building blocks that everyone is familiar with which allows for them to be reassembled in new and different ways, whereas we seem to have splintered into a multitude of different specialties with little to no cross flow between them. It’s hard to write deeply when you can’t depend on your readers to understand that you’re stealing a line from Shakespeare, which was pulled from the bible, and which was used in an entirely different way by this poet. Whole levels of meaning are lost when that common orientation is stripped. A small cut off culture like you describe would still have a similar orientation which allows for the growth of literacy.

    What I am getting at is similar to the lossy vs. lossless recording methods mentioned above. Meaning depends on the context of what is written, which includes the reader’s background. Strip that background and what was a lossless method loses layers of meaning. I think others have said some of the same things as I have so I’ll leave this here, Just remember, what I wrote means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.

  30. Interesting extension of this: the rise in online education inevitably will focus the mass market of education on the compilation of facts and data, rather than the critical thinking around that data. As billions learn facts and data from the best professors in the world, critical thinking will atrophy.

    • Somehow I always thought the rise in online education with the accompanying explosion of freely available resources will (a) bring critical thinking ability (as well as creativity) into sharper focus as a necessary skill, and (b) make fact collection and tranmission almost redundant and recede into the background.

      The sheer quantity of available facts in multiple forms would make filtering for relevance and presentation in more interesting ways gain prominence. It would force the traditional classroom and book formats to concentrate on facilitating critical thinking in the learners, or presenting the output of critical thinking from the learning facilitators. Of course, the line separating the student and teacher would often blur.

      • I’m sympathetic to this scenario but cynical it will happen. Have you ever taken an online course in ethics? Its a class heavy on checking off a list and short on in-depth thinking. These are the courses in the syllabus students are expected to complete.

        I’ve always viewed the university as an ice breaker of sorts. You may go there to study a specific subject, but along they way you meet people in topics you would never study, and the social circumstances compel you to learn more about those areas.

        With classes online, the shift to a goal-oriented university of check boxes complete. With less of a community to support your impractical choice to study art history or philosophy or anthropology, and a seemingly endless supply of programming jobs, we will see more students head for the practical in favor of the worthwhile.

        Without a social community of academics in other areas, fewer programming students will learn to appreciate how biology informs modern systems, or how philosophy spawned the logic of Objective C. Instead they will get this synthesis spoon-fed by Hulu with advertisements for Contiki in between.

        There will still be great universities where you can interact with these students and professors, but the winner-take-all mentality of broadcasting will make a virtual degree from Harvard more palatable than an in-person degree from UCLA. Great researchers will rejoice at having fewer students to babysit, but their lack of visibility will eventually lead to declining funding.

        Like Gutenberg, this trend promises to bring a lower quality, secondary skill of memorization to the masses at the expense of idea synthesis.

  31. This is probably the most flattering interpretation of my decision to become a mathematician.

    My personal writing style is very unsuited to modern literacy; I love to condense but am not very good at exposition. And every time I sit down to write, I end up thinking instead.

    One English professor of mine told me that when she was an undergrad, her professor would let students skip the final exam if you came to his office and recited Milton’s poem Lycidas. I took that to mean you would learn more about literature from this exercise than from his lectures and could prove this better than regurgitating his musings in a blue book.

  32. I had been mulling over delving back into Nietzsche for about a week before reading this piece, and this treatment of dense writing and aphorism was enough to push me over the edge. This obliged in an unexpected way; just thirty pages into Zarathustra, we get “that everyone may learn to read in the long run corrupts not only writing but thinking” and “whoever writes in blood and aphorism does not want to be read but learned by heart.” This is from 1883, just prior to your tentative date for the shift to post-literacy; unsurprisingly, given his skepticism of the mass man and his isolated perspective (as well as writing style!), Nietzsche seems to have been very attuned to the sea-change taking place. I even think he’s got a line to condense this n-thousand word exposition to two sentences:

    “In the mountains, the shortest path is from peak to peak, but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be the peaks, and those who are addressed, tall and lofty.”

    As a side note, I think this can be one of the great strengths of religion, particularly the ones that venerate a sacred text (rather than the ones that worship the text, like most fundamentalisms). My mother is a pastor and seminary professor, and ensured that as I was gaining first-order, functional literacy as a child, I was also taking note of word choice and order, structural composition, multiple layers of meaning, and other second-order literacy concerns. Though no longer religious, this appreciation for literary density has stuck with me in a way that I think is much more likely if one is taught that the importance of reading lies in the ability to parse an encoded tradition, rather than get current events from a newspaper (or worse, to “find the theme to this short story and argue for it.” A parody at best).

    • Hmm… It’s been a while, but I don’t recall those lines. Maybe my edition used different words for translation. Maybe I am doing subconscious recall.

      But yeah, fascinating. Scripture definitely illustrates a high degree of scholastic literacy even though it generally lacks a scientific sensibility. So it acquires high precision without acquiring commensurate accuracy.

  33. Might be worthwhile to think through Knuth’s literate programming with this in mind.

  34. Thank you, I am truly impressed.

    I was linked here from quora.

  35. that is a perfect one-liner to describe what is happening. I have struggled to find the words to descibe it, and there they are.

  36. A few comments:

    1. Can you provide any reference for your interpretation of Indian combinatorial recitation practices? A “null hypothesis” would be that such elaborate practices were simply an aberration serving no useful purpose that was developed once and then persisted solely by conservatism of tradition.

    2. “Sites like are sustaining basic literacy skills.”

    This sentence reveals imprecision of your concept of “literacy”. TvTropes is all about *semantic* literacy, that is, being able to recognize cultural contexts and references. As such, it has no inherently “linguistic” component – one can be well-versed in modern memes and popular cultures in exactly the same way that ancient tribesmen could be well-versed in their own local culture, poems, oral tradition etc. If this is what you mean by “literacy”, it’s completely unoriginal (and schoolteachers have been ranting about this kind of “illiteracy” since the beginning of time), but as I understand, your concept of “literacy” is closer to syntactic or low-level aspects of language, somehow more related to the structure of language, not the outside reality that language refers to (in this respect, I see no particular structural difference between quoting Shakespeare quoting Bible and quoting “Casablanca” or Tarantino’s movies). Or am I missing something?

    3. “Mathematics and programming, two specialized derivatives of language that I consider part of high culture, retained the characteristics of oral cultures of old, with an emphasis on recombinant manipulation, terseness, generality and portability.”

    Can you elucidate that? It seems a rather far-fetched claim.

  37. Ernie Bornheimer says

    “Curiously, I find the language of illiterate (reading-writing sense) to usually be much clearer. When I listen to some educated people talk, I get the curious feeling that the words don’t actually matter. That it is all a behaviorist game of aversion and attraction and basic affect overlaid on the workings of a mechanical process. That mechanical process is enacted by instrumental meaning-machines manufactured in schools to generate, and respond appropriately to, a narrow class of linguistic stimuli without actually understanding anything.

    When I am in a public space dominated by mass culture and its native inhabitants, such as a mall, I feel like I am surrounded by philosophical zombies. Yes, they talk and listen, but it is not clear to me that what they are using is language.”

    Yes…yes…sort of.

    I understand and sympathize and disapprove, but I don’t think this is new. I think it’s always been the case.

    Years ago I came across a startling quote by Chomsky, something like: “The primary function of language is not communication.” At first I was puzzled, but now I think I understand what he means, and it’s exactly what Venkat is talking about. Most of what passes between us when talk to each other is not information, it’s something else, something social. Like a very sophisticated system of grunts. It only seems odd to those of us who need something different in our interactions.

    • Ernie, can you point to the actual chomsky quote? I would like to read more about it. I find the same problem in all my communications and have been trying to figure it out on my own. Chomskys’ paper/article sounds interesting.

      • Ernie Bornheimer says

        Hi, Anand

        I searched, and came up with a few relevant passages:—-.htm

        And the following, which I had never read before, but it seems particularly good:

        “There is no reason to believe … that language “essentially” serves instrumental ends, or that the “essential purpose” of language is “communication,” as is often said, at least if we mean by “communication” something like transmitting information or inducing belief. Someone who claims that this is the essential purpose of language must explain just what he means by it, and why he believes this function, and no other, to be so uniquely significant.

        Language is used in many different ways. Language can be used to transmit information, but it also serves many other purposes: to establish relations among people, to express or clarify thought, for play, for creative mental activity, to gain understanding, and so on. In my opinion, there is no reason to accord privileged status to one or the other of these modes. Forced to choose, I would have to say something quite classical and rather empty: language serves essentially for the expression of thought.

        I know of no reason to suppose that instrumental ends, or transmission of information about one’s beliefs, or other actions that might reasonably be called “communication” (unless, of course, the term is used quite vacuously), have some unique significance compared with other characteristic uses of language. In fact, what is meant by the assertion that such-and-such is the goal of language, or its essential purpose, is far from clear. … this plurality of modes is characteristic of the most banal and normal use of language.

        It is hard to know just what people mean when they say that language is “essentially” an instrument of communication. If you press them a bit and ask them to be more precise, you will often find, for example, that under “communication” they include communication with oneself. Once you admit that, the notion of communication loses all content; the expression of thought becomes a kind of communication. These proposals seem to be either false, or quite empty, depending on the interpretation that is given, even with the best of will. It is all so vague that discussion remains mystifying. I have no idea why such proposals are so often made, frequently with such fervor, or what on earth they are supposed to signify.”

        Hope that helps!


        • Davis Doersam says

          “Most of what passes between us when talk to each other is not information, it’s something else, something social. Like a very sophisticated system of grunts. It only seems odd to those of us who need something different in our interactions.”

          Sounds like what Malinowski called “phatic communion”…

          “Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfil a social function, and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener. Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought.” [from Ogden & Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning]

          It seems to me that, aside from the traditional small talk/phatic communion of greetings and the weather, Gollumized/hollowed-out mass culture and subcultures fuction as a sort of phatic container, set areas in which to perform a “meaning”-less social signalling game.

  38. Very interesting post, which I’ve responded to . . .

  39. I really enjoyed this article. It was well written and provoked a lot of reflection.

    I’m now curious to know more and I would love to read more about this topic. Would you be willing to share some of the sources you used for your research?