Saskia Sassen
George Soros
Anita Sieff
Ronald. M. Bosrock
Slavoj Žižek
Umberto Galimberti
Francesco Antinucci
Timothy Druckrey
Marina Gržinić
Rudi Rizman
Carlos Basualdo
John Peter Nilsson
Olu Oguibe
Mika Hannula
Jordan Crandall
Eda Čufer
Aleš Erjavec
Nataša Petrešin
Mark Amerika
  Viktor Misiano

Strategizing Against Inevitability

Francesco Antinucci

The greatest barrier is language: the computer can overcome it

The greatest obstacle to integration has always consisted of the linguistic differences which limit the number of people able to have access to knowledge and information. However, computer-based technology which is visual, interactive and substantially "craftsmanlike" allows us to by-pass the biological barrier of language differences for the first time.

What "globalisation" means is not always clear, especially in relation to understanding what is going on in the world today. In fact on the one hand the term seems to be too vague: it is certainly not the first time in the history of man that we witness such easily denoted phenomena; I remember about twenty years ago everyone was talking about "planetisation" and before that "universalisation". It could be thought that we have been dealing with the same phenomenon since the end of the Second World War (even though I think that the connotations of these terms were slightly different). Nevertheless, it is possible to eliminate the field from any ambiguity by reopening a book on ancient history: isn't the formation and development of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 4th centuries nothing less than globalisation? (And perhaps more pertinent than the modern phenomenon from the point of view of "amalgamating" cultures and ethnic groups: there is little difference between the appearance of a small coliseum in every town of the Roman Empire and that of a McDonalds nowadays). Analogously, if we take a look at economics, how are we to consider the vast opening up and expansion of markets between the 18th and 19th centuries? And what of the rapid diffusion of technology and industry (from the Channel to the Urals) at the end of the 20th century (which, and this is no coincidence, saw the first "world" war)?

Therefore, under slightly closer examination, it is clear what specifically characterises today's phenomenon. Perhaps nothing, it could be argued: nothing from a qualitative point of view. They are simply the same phenomena on a larger scale (even though it is anything but universal: Africa is a marginal pocket both quantitatively and qualitatively), or perhaps more crucially they all happen together in the same environment: economic, technological, cultural, etc. Therefore they have impressive results (from the conformist point of view), but there is nothing that hasn't been seen before, either in terms of process or result. However, I want to try and sustain that today's phenomenon presents something highly specific which makes it different from anything in the past, from the moment it had a profound change in human cognitive terms, in the ways in which we acquire, elaborate and exchange knowledge which can only have enormous consequences for the fundamental means of interaction.

The keystone of all this is the nature of the technology at the basis of the processes taking place. Naturally all great phenomena of this type have always had some kind of supportive technology (technology of construction, transport, war, etc), but their characteristic - with one major exception, which we will look at in closer detail later - is that of having been, up until now, "technologies of the body". Generally we can conceive technologies as artefacts which support and amplify natural human capacity. Therefore, when I say "technologies of the body" I mean those technologies which support and amplify natural human capacity: for example, the ability to move and travel in space, or that of carrying out physical labour. We are dealing with "energetic" technologies which have dominated human history from its very origins to the present day. However, I said that there is an important exception: that of printing. Printing, and its older predecessor, writing, are "technologies of the mind". In fact they are technologies which support and amplify man's mental capacity: in this case memory, the ability to remember and to communicate. As with the energetic technologies, these have had huge results in the history of mankind: no society that is even minimally complex could continue without the means of recording data which goes beyond the capacity of human memory. Printing's power of amplifying and multiplying communication, with all the derivative consequences, is still before our very eyes (literally, while you are reading this printed article). The century which has just ended - and perhaps this is what distinguishes it from the previous century - began to develop an entire range of technologies of the mind: the telephone, cinema, radio, television, culminating in the most powerful and omni-comprehensible of all, the computer.

Let's return to the processes of globalisation. Whatever their nature and specific fundamental power, they have to deal with a resistance, an intrinsic obstacle which is part of human nature, which is almost paradoxical. In man, the means of communication and therefore the main vehicle for exchanges and social relations of any kind, is language: it is language, with its unlimited wealth of informative exchange which, unlike communication between other animals, permits understanding, and vast and complex integration on a behavioural level. At the same time, language, due to its intrinsic characteristics, is subject to continual transformation and differentiation, thus resulting in not only a vast number of different languages but also a continual change and division of existing languages. The result of this process is that of a mutual incomprehensibility of spoken languages, even when these historically derive from the same language: the so-called Babel of languages. There is no doubt that linguistic difference represents a great obstacle to any process of global integration, as extended and radical as this process is. Also, as we are well aware, the obstacle is of a double nature. One is "technical": learning and speaking another language is difficult, lengthy and it is also difficult to reach an adequate level of ability if learning was not begun as a child or if time hasn't been spent in an environment where the language is spoken. There is a further difficulty: language is not a "neutral", only a technical, factor of communication; various values tend to be associated with it which make it ideologically difficult to abandon one language in favour of another (it is no coincidence that we talk of "linguistic imperialism"). It is necessary to establish that the development and global diffusion of modern democratic values paradoxically tends to bring with it an ulterior and more forceful linguistic division, in that the language, in the form of a language of a certain community, tends to be chosen as a fundamental symbol of democratic values of, for example, the local autonomies, with the result of distancing the conditions of global integration even further from their starting point.

The ancient and modern experience shows that the linguistic factor has always acted as a powerful brake against these processes, both in the Roman Empire and in the United States of America, where after almost 200 years of the virtually undisputed integration of the English language, it has found itself having serious institutional problems in this field for the past twenty years (consider the so-called "English only language measure"). If this has been one of the greatest obstacles to the processes of globalisation, it should be said that technology has been unable to do anything about this problem. On the contrary, the only technologies of the mind developed up to this century - writing, publishing, but also the telephone and the radio - are technologies which operate with and through one language: thus, as has already been mentioned, amplifying its power and also the resistance to it (for example, only if the spoken language of a community becomes written and published). The most advanced technology of exchange existing today, the internet, still operates fundamentally through language.

On the other hand it is true that human cognition relating to the acquisition, elaboration and exchange of knowledge in advanced cultures has been almost exclusively based on language for the last four centuries. This means of communication is technically known as "symbolic-reconstructive": (linguistic) symbols are read, they are interpreted for encoding the meaning and "objects" are reconstructed in the mind as a reference for meanings. If the process is carried out successfully, we acquire, via this mental work, the knowledge which a transmitter has previously incorporated through an analogous and inverse process. The written text is the universal intermediary form of these processes: for this reason, all of our knowledge is deposited in them. The enormous diffusion of this means of acquiring knowledge has made us forget that this is not the only way of receiving it, and it is not even the first, neither in a genetic or historical sense. There exists another, which is called "perceptive-motor": I understand a real situation, I try to modify it through my actions, I investigate the result of this intervention. The reaction to my action (which is intrinsically noteworthy) it makes me understand aspects of each situation. Repeating these cycles of perception-action-perception based on the results I obtain each time, I develop increasingly accurate and articulated forms of knowledge. We are basically dealing with the familiar process of understanding through "experiencing": when you have a machine or device in front of you and you don't know how it works, you often adopt this procedure, and if it goes successfully you "learn" to use it. This is also the procedure used by a small child who doesn't yet have a language or symbolic apparatus, learning almost everything about the world surrounding him/her.

This is not a secondary way of learning: on the contrary. The case of the small child shows its extraordinary power. Another phenomenon also demonstrates this force: the fact that everybody, if given the choice, prefers learning this way as it is easier than the symbolic-reconstructive means (is there anyone who thinks it is easier to read and study instructions?).

The limit of this way of learning is that it can be applied and functions only if the perceptive-motor is in direct contact with the situation to be learned. You can also learn to write with the computer without an instruction manual: put yourselves in front of the keyboard, look at the screen and continually modify your actions in view of the results you can see (I am sure that the majority of people who use a computer have done exactly this without resorting to the Word manual); but you can only do it if you have a computer at your disposition. This severely limits the number of people who have access to knowledge, compared to the symbolic way, particularly when this is assisted by a technology which manages to place the "environment" of knowledge at everybody's disposition: even today it is easier and cheaper to have a manual at hand rather than a computer. And this is not just a limit of access: there are many things which are not accessible to perception and action, at least in theory. For example, all the things which are too big or too small for our sensory and motor organs: you cannot see or touch a solar system or an atom. Yet these things can be constructed in our minds and it is possible to apply reference symbols to them. From here, we pass to the symbolic-reconstructive and its inevitable linguistic base.

This situation, which has dominated the scene in the last four to five centuries, is on the point of changing dramatically. The computer is a technology of the mind which helps to support the perceptive-motor means: the computer will be for this means what publishing was for the symbolic-reconstructive way. Thus it will do what all important technologies do: it will remove both the contingent and intrinsic limits of this means and will greatly broaden the scope of action. This is happening (or will happen, as we are at the beginning of this process) because on the one hand the computer is capable of processing three-dimensional images in real time and therefore of simulating perceptive human situations, and on the other because it is able to simulate the behaviour of this artificially created situation, human action is the same as if the situation were real. Basically, the computer is able to simulate, without limits or barriers of any kind, a universe and make it available for human perceptive-motor activity. This immense simulative capacity - which is the real essence of the computer - is gradually changing, and will continue to change, the approach to learning and processing knowledge. It can already be seen, for example, in the scientific research centres of completely disparate fields, where the simulative method is widely used instead of more traditional methods, such as experimental ones. Gradually it will also filter - above all when the most powerful technological platforms (the visual simulation in real time needs a lot of power) will be available at low costs - towards the sectors of learning and the transmission of knowledge.

Therefore this change is destined to have an enormous impact on our problem, and also on that of the linguistic obstacle against exchange and integration: perceptive-motor action does not depend on language, unlike symbolic-reconstructive action (or at least it depends on it to a much lesser extent than the latter), and therefore is not sensitive to linguistic differences. Thus it is possible that learning and the exchange of knowledge can overcome the barrier put up by these differences. At this point it may seem that the notions of learning and exchange of knowledge are connected to language and that my affirmations can seem paradoxical: but this isn't the case. We know environments of learning and exchanges of knowledge where this occurs: or, more precisely, where it occurred. The traditional ""workshop" where in the past one worked one's apprenticeship (and it is no accident that it disappeared with the advent of publishing) was one of these environments. Apprenticeship was based on what the apprentice did: the apprentice learnt by observing what the master did, then trying to imitate him and being corrected, and thus learnt through these cycles of perception-action-perception. Naturally they weren't mute in the workshops, but it is clear that the fundamental channels of apprenticeship were perception and action, while language was a secondary accessory, perhaps of focussing the student's attention and of highlighting the physical work. Other characteristics of this environment are linguistic expressions such as "you do it like this" or "I'll show you", in which the basic informative content does not consist of the words and their meaning but of the actions accompanying them.

Technologies based on the computer, both visual and interactive, allow us to recreate this environment, and will also allow us in the near future when the internet is "able" to carry these contents (wide band, etc.), and recreate it regardless of the physical co-presence of the participants, who will be able to interact from wherever they are. Therefore it will be possible to learn and exchange knowledge by-passing the linguistic barrier. If this scenario I have just mentioned is plausible, then the process of globalisation will have characteristics different from everything we have previously seen, not so much for its dimensions, but because for the first time in history it will overcome a human biological barrier in order to arrive at a "globalisation of the mind".