Mar 26, 2010

Innovation in Language and the Implication of Data Structures in Digital Communications

Deconstruction and creation of language is important to our ability to create new forms and ideas of thought. the rise of a codified, regulated standard for language, while increasingly facilitating the transmission of pre-codified (ie agreed upon) messages, does nothing but stifle the innovation of new forms of thought and expressions of meaning.

Language was, first and foremost, a verbal mechanism designed to transmit thought. Codification and standardization are necessary (and inherent) to the creation of a language, in that it must be understood across a normative common to all speakers. However, in order for new ideas to be expressed (outside of the normative common, as a manner of expanding this so called 'norm') a language must be flexible enough to encompass the creation of new words and turns of phrase.

It should be possible, therefore, to trace innovation through language and the emergence of terms associated with a new concept. One such example of this would be the rise of the term Passive - Aggressive as an aspect of self-consciousness and self-identification (or identification in general of others) via the use of the term. Previous to the coinage of such a phrase, a person would not be able to express the concept or idea of being "passive-aggressive" because such a concept did not exist, neither in our vocabulary nor in our social collective of "norms" (accepting the definition of a language being a verbal and written codification of normatized collective thought). Passive-aggression as an interpretation of human behavior is thus the innovation of psychology, adapted and transmitted through language, and finally used contextually to shape our personal and collective understanding of ourselves and each other.

I should probably note that my use of the words "passive-aggressive", is in and of itself an interpretation of the idea. In this discussion, I am more referring to the colloquial use of the word to describe a person or the actions of a person, usually in reference to something that this person has done or what how they are thinking towards another. In all actuality, I have little to no idea how the term originated (Wikipedia tells me that it was coined in or around the 1950s), but am merely reporting back from my experiences with the word, both personally as I have applied to to myself and through relations of others to convey the idea or thought of how another person defines their own actions. To stretch to the realms of ethonography, I would relate the story of sometime during my freshman or sophomore year in college (by years, not hours), when I first came across the term. A friend used it to describe the way that she interacted with others, in that she was not very good at being able to be openly aggressive towards others, but instead allowed a sort of repressed anger to be expressed not through physical or verbal means, but instead via subversive actions meant to humiliate or in some other manner humiliate the object of this "passive" aggression. Since this explanation, I did no personal research on the term, but have since been personally responsible for propagating this concept using the term as I have such understood it.

Without the adoption of a term to illustrate this phenomenon (the act of being or feeling passive aggressive), we (a collective here meaning the English speaking population) would not have the tools necessary to define or describe this particular aspect of action or thought.

Examples of how language innovation can lead to a new understanding or identification aside, an interesting application of this understanding of the flexibility of language can be drawn to the transmission and use of data structures in the digital realm. Specifically, early data structures (specifically HTML), had problems with their flexibility because of the vast amount of codification (or specifications... I think technically these are called RFC or Requests For Comments and are nothing more than a "grammar book" of an internet 'language' or standard for a particular method of expression. In the case of HTML, this is an 'expression' of web pages) required in order to express or pass new information.

I feel that a brief explanation of the entire ML or "markup language" is in order. In a ML, concepts are digitally understood (digitally here meaning by a machine and not human recipient) via the use of "tags", a demarcation surrounding a body of text. The language is entirely text based, with these tags marking how each piece or body of text should be interpreted. For example, BOLD would create a bolded piece of text. In fact, just in the attempt to create an example, my word has been bolded thanks to the machine reader. Here's a spaced out attempt (hark! digital subterfuge!) < b >BOLD< / b >.

HTML was wildly and widely accepted and is still the defacto language for creating and sharing content via the 'webpage' format. However, the use of HTML for the transmission of other types and forms of language was and is impeded by the strict codification required to express changes. If I created a new way of highlighting text, for example, one that was more impactful and better conveyed my message than a simple bolding, I would need to also create a new set of tags that could then be used to surround the text that I wanted to appear with this new "highlight" method. Of course, as in other languages in both the digital and spoken world, it's possible to patch together various means to highlight words, however, there is no simple and straightforward tag that could be used to do so. The language is not flexible enough to allow this.

Enter XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. Now, admittedly, I would not profess to being proficient at the use and exact 'data structures' that XML schema and the like employ, however, my understanding of them is that XML has a flexible schema that allows you to create and publish a new language "norm" any time that you want. Instead of having to change the well codified and vetted "norm" that governs HTML, you only have to change your own personal standard. New tags can be created at whim, innovation is allowed to flourish throughout the internets!

I'm leaving this discussion for now, but not without giving mention to the fact that XML has, of course, given rise to new "languages" that used by various industries and organizations on the internet in order to share data by a common standard, where tags are standardized for a given set of information, for example airline flight information. Thus a airline can publish information digitally that can be read and retrieved by various online ticket search engines, travel agents, competing flights, their own internal systems, etc. But the sheer flexibility (by variable tagging and nesting, which was not mentioned in this post) of XML has allowed for it to become the "lingua franca" of machine to machine communication.

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