Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Magic Words

When language itself becomes a tool ...

The human belief in magical powers has probably included the power of words dating back to the earliest beginnings of language. It's widely present in mythology and fable, and continues with us today in contemporary myths like the Dungeons and Dragons game and the Harry Potter saga. Who wouldn't like to be able to say "shazam" or "abracadabra" and have things happen?

Language may not have been our first tool, but it quickly became the most powerful of them through its ability to encode knowledge and pass it along to others, even across generations. Each time we enhanced it, the power of language increased dramatically. We invented writing to supplement our power to remember, then printing to increase the availability of written documents, and lately what we might call "indexing" -- the addition of powerful search algorithms to make information radically more accessible.

Information that used to be arcane because it was buried in a single library somewhere is increasingly widespread and publicly available. My first experience of this was back in the early years of the Internet. I was running a digital printing business at the time and wanted information about scanning images -- recommendations for color depth, dots per inch, and how to scale them.

It was one of the first things I ever used a search engine for, and even though there was no Google yet (I was probably using Yahoo or AltaVista) within five minutes I was reading a masters thesis on the subject which had been made available by a distant university. The document answered all my questions and then some, complete with illustrations, charts, and graphs. I was truly impressed.

Such incidents are now so commonplace that we not only expect them but take them for granted. Why shouldn't things be this way? Of course, all we should have to do is know what question to ask, and the answers will be available -- all 2,417,673 of them.

Behind the scenes of this modern miracle is the global network of computers and software that are doing the job for us. And the real secret of their power is the use of language to communicate with them -- both for programming and for getting comprehensible output from them.

This came home to me again recently as I was honing my skills as a website designer. Mostly this involved facility with various computer languages -- HTML/XHTML for page content, CSS for page styles, and both Javascript and PHP for working with special effects, databases, forms, and "dynamic" pages created on the fly in response to user input.

The most satisfying part of this job is that the words you write actually DO something. They are the abracadabras of the computer age. And even though computers are notoriously intolerant of tiny typos like incorrect capitalization or missing semicolons, they are absolutely obedient to correct syntax. (And really, wouldn't it be better if we humans could be relied upon to require clear instructions and then to do exactly what we have agreed to do?)

In the spirit of the new age, this mastery of the machine is not limited to those who can do the programming. Anyone who wants it can access the same search engines. Anyone who wants one can have an email account. The computers are standing by to do our bidding.

So next time you send a message to a bunch of your friends, just say, "Shazam!" and see what happens.

1 comment:

  1. I shared a link and comments on your Facebook page, looks like they belong here, too! Since I can't see how to paste in a link, though, I will simply urge readers to find the Utne Reader on the Internet, and then search it for "undertaker" to read the words of poet Thomas Lynch under the title "Sex, Death and Poetry."