A “Post-Verbal” World

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 4.08.17 PM“The real world is unspeakable.” -Alfred Korzybski

I was walking with a friend recently, and we were discussing the limitations of language (among many things, like the best pancakes in San Francisco). But we kept going in circles on just how difficult it is to explain something using the spoken word… especially in trying to explain complex concepts like a deep experience, an abstract or philosophical concept, or a new idea.

In short, on the topic of language, what we were discussing was just how clumsy verbal or written communication is in spreading what exists in one head into another (we’ve all been there, trying our hardest to do that with a friend, loved one, or stranger) — that, instead of ‘transmutation’ of a concept or idea, like how a cold might spread, communicating an idea or viewpoint through language is actually quite difficult and oftentimes impossible. Until chatting about it with my friend, I don’t think I had given this limitation that much thought.

The conversation took an even more interesting turn when we zeroed in on just what a world would look like if information, wisdom, and concepts could be fully and instantly articulated from one person to another.

Living in San Francisco and working within tech, this brought up the topic of Elon Musk’s newest company (launched earlier this year), called Neuralink, which aims to build… well, in their words, “brain-computer interfaces” that help take advantage of artificial intelligence’s promise (in connecting it directly to the brain) and to secondarily overcome the limitations of what they call ‘the low-bandwidth’ method of current human communication.

This post isn’t necessarily about Neuralink itself, but to give the necessary context: Early in 2017, Elon Musk and several co-founders announced the launch of a new company with the purpose to build devices that connect directly to the brain. Tim Urban, of “Wait But Why” fame, wrote a great breakdown of Elon Musk’s newest company Neuralink. His post is a longgg read (like 36,000 words long), but the synopsis of his post –and of the promise that the new company holds– is two-fold:

1) In order to harness the future fruits of Artificial Intelligence for human prosperity, Neuralink believes we must build a seamless brain-computer interface.

2) And this device, among many things it will accomplish for us, will help move the human population beyond the extremely limiting medium of verbal or written communication (and instead get into what we’ll call “conceptual communication”).

As Elon and his co-founders talked to Tim about what the world would be like with a brain-wired computer (which is exactly what it sounds like; a device wired to your brain), Elon and the other co-founders of Neuralink spoke very briefly about a world with telepathic communication — and the efficiencies we will see. It’s futuristic. It’s fascinating. And with things like cochlear implants and the rate at which our computers are getting smaller and smaller (like the phone in your pocket), it also feels like we’re already on this path in many ways.

The thoughts below do not pertain to the technology proposed, the challenges to get there, or the Artificial Intelligence aspect of the idea (the primary focus of the “Wait But Why” piece). Most of my fascination is on going deeply into that second potential outcome of this company, or any human/brain-computer interface, that will move us beyond current modes of communication — where humans no longer communicate slowly, inefficiently, and in my case while on my walk with my friend: with lots of difficulty.

On conceptual communication…

What does the team at Neuralink say on the topic of language in the article? Tim and Elon label the limitations of language as “low-bandwidth communication.”

From Tim:

“A word is simply an approximation of a thought—buckets that a whole category of similar-but-distinct thoughts can all be shoved into. If I watch a horror movie and want to describe it to you in words, I’m stuck with a few simple low-res buckets—“scary” or “creepy” or “chilling” or “intense.” My actual impression of that movie is very specific and not exactly like any other movie I’ve seen—but the crude tools of language force my brain to “round to the nearest bucket” and choose the word that most closely resembles my actual impression, and that’s the information you’ll receive from me.”

But all told, the article spends far more time on the technology than it spends on this topic.

Furthermore, it spends very little time describing what a world — either 15 or 50 years in the future — would be like if we could communicate efficiently through a mind-to-mind, conceptual medium like this.

That’s the world I want to describe here. I call this future a “post-verbal” world — and it’s a world that I think Elon, his team, and others looking at this space are just scratching the surface in imagining. Said another way, and building on the conversation with my friend the other day, I think we’re collectively and extremely limited in our understanding of how much our current world is shaped and restricted by modern language[1]. Furthermore, I think we’re equally limited in our imagination of just how much this new world will differ from the one we live in now

I’m obviously limited to linear, written language while describing this topic, but I’ll do my best to outline the actual issues with language today and then try to paint a picture of what the future could hold.

Why is communication so interesting…

Zooming out, let’s start with some basic observations that make the limitations of language such a fascinating topic:

First: Verbal and written language are the predominant ways in which we connect with those around us, coordinate with others, and convey ideas.

*Given our alternatives, verbal language is the best we have for coordinating resources with others on the fly. From “Let’s hang out this weekend!” to “Let’s get a coffee to talk about that presentation that we’ve got to give next month.” to “Can you hand me the sugar?”

*It’s even how we coordinate with ourselves: “I shouldn’t have said that last night! I’ve got to remember to keep my mouth shut when his name comes up!”

*It’s how we connect and convey ideas: “I love you” or “I’m very sorry”.

*Yes, we have things like video, photos, or body language [2], but the predominant way we communicate ideas or coordination widely (or with ourselves) on a daily basis is through spoken or written word.

Second: Verbal and written language are both very hard to master (not to mention the difficulty in mastering things like video capture or body language).

*Learning to speak and articulate simple thoughts is one thing. But writing an eloquent essay or conversing flawlessly is more akin to writing music — a note in the wrong place can throw off the entire melody in the same way that a wrong word or phrase can lead to a major miscommunication or a misinterpretation… one that throws off the flow of the idea, conversation, or sometimes entire relationship.

*This gets even harder with real-time, in person communication than it is with the written word. With music, we all understand that it’s very hard to be a great composer. We don’t walk down the street and expect everyone to be a great composer. However, for some illogical reason, we expect everyone to use verbal and written communication near-perfectly. Meaning that we don’t care what people meant, we care about the exact words they chose. Proficiency is our baseline expectation — putting every right word in its right place and said the right way. And outside of a few forgiven mistakes, we expect people to continuously string their articulated thoughts, experiences, or ideas together with the fluidity of a neatly-arranged song. If we don’t fully understand a concept or empathize with an experience, it’s the concept or experience that’s at fault — not the communication attempt.

*Yet eloquence is rare. It turns out that high verbal proficiency is actually about as hard to master as an extremely talented musician taking to the violin. Yet, again, for the most part, we don’t have much forgiveness or patience for those around us that don’t meticulously watch every word (anyone that’s been in an argument with a significant other knows just. how. much. you can pay for an ill-placed word or thought!). Our expectations don’t match the reality or rarity of proficiency. But, given the world we live in, these are the predominant mediums in which ideas or experiences are exchanged and people connect. So until the proposed future world, get to mastering one of them as best you can.

This can naturally make one think about something like Twitter and the misinterpretation of short sentences (and the public shaming that can ensue).

Third: Verbal and written communication are both still limited, even once mastered.

*These forms of communication are not just hard to master, they are still very clumsy once you do. In other words, a unicycle is both hard to master, and there’s very little (read “no”) nobility in mastering it — because it also turns out that it’s a very inefficient vehicle to travel around in, even for a master of it.

*Verbal and written communication are clumsy like the unicycle because they are linear, and yet the world is not linear (in reading this post, for example, you have to absorb the idea in my head letter by letter, word by word, and line by line). Look around the room you’re in. It’s not linear. It’s not happening line by line. It’s all happening all the time — and it would take you an eternity just to describe everything that’s happening in your room to another person with words. Describing the world in words is like trying to sow the ocean together. The tools don’t actually match the task they’re given — And yet, we try, like the poet, to say what can’t be said.

*It’s the best we’ve got (but that doesn’t make the tools any less clumsy).

So now that we’ve covered a few basic observations on the inefficiency of modern language (there’s also about 50 years of recent philosophical thought just on linguistics that dive even deeper into this topic [3]), these limitations explain a little of the frustration we feel when we try to convey how we feel to a loved one, and it comes out cheesy. Or when you explain a new idea to your boss and think “she just doesn’t get it!” when they don’t give you the budget for the idea. It doesn’t make the frustration go away, but it can make you feel better that it’s not all your fault, it’s the coffee straw we’re trying to send an Amazon package through; the medium is not ideal for the task.

This is what makes a brain-computer interface so interesting. It could help us move beyond these limitations and daily frustrations we have with current forms of communication.

However, what’s even more fascinating, is imagining what things would look like in a “post-verbal” world. Like with Columbus and his merry-time explorers originally in search of Indian spices, we ended up with a new continent, a new world-power, and a new form of self-government as the result (with the case of America). In this new world, solving the daily frustrations is nice — but whether it’s 15 years or 50 years from now, I think this post-verbal world will change our individual and collective psychologies, relationships, and perspectives to the point that previous generations and our previous selves will seem like hypnotized, self-sabotaging meanderers, a closer relative to cavemen than what our species will look like with this type of conceptual communication technology.

To build this visual, let’s consider what it is like to move through the world without verbal or written communication.

Babies and pets do it every day. Before a baby can talk, they’re in a phase known as “pre-verbal.” This is when they experience what Freudian psychologists call the “oceanic” feeling: the inability to distinguish objects, including themselves, as separate from one another. In the same way that we don’t distinguish different waves from the ocean in which they occur, an infant in this stage doesn’t distinguish objects or events as being separate from one another. It’s all just one, indistinguishable, and interconnected world — similar to how we see one ocean.

During this time they begin to use other forms of perception and communication to understand and interact with the world around them. Things like crying when they’re uncomfortable, seeing a smile and feeling safe, feeling warmth, laughing when they see something unexpected (though concurrent with other interactions with the world like feeling safe).

This phase can lead to a lot of extremely cute occurrences. They can still give and receive human connection in these first two to three years (in fact, this is so extreme early on that the definition of the oceanic feeling is that they quite literally aren’t aware of a concept of “disconnection” from other objects or people around them). Though they don’t know the sounds and words we later teach them as symbols for these feelings, they can still experience peace and love. They can also experience a lot of frustration when desires or discomforts are not adequately addressed. I’m actually currently on a plane hearing a baby express this feeling in a pre-verbal way. 🙂

However, babies are hurried out of this phase, either externally by parents trying to activate the useful faculty of verbal communication, or internally activated from the pain of unexpressed and unfulfilled desires that the infant feels.

The infant grows into a child. The child enters the verbal-world; where he or she persists in a fumbling environment of trying to learn from others (often through communication), what it is they “should” want and pursue, while bumping into others their age that are being told the same things, and then learn (again, often through the use of verbal communication), how to get that “thing” they think they want (a grade, a status, a paycheck, a house, etc) — then learn at 40 or 50 or 80 years old that what they really want is to return to the world and basic feelings that they had when they were pre-verbal, where they realize the grade, the status, the paycheck, and the house is just a symbol of what they actually wanted (ie, to be loved, valued, safe, warm, and to experience occasional fun, unexpected events). All the feelings that coexisted with the oceanic feeling.

Oceanic adulthood…

What would a world look like where we could read the (volunteered) thoughts of our 14 year old child telepathically?

Furthermore, what would a world look like where coordination is achieved, desires met, and where we don’t need language? A world in which we no longer need verbal, linear, and clumsy mediums of communication (we may still use them episodically either for situations that require it or for the same reasons we sometimes still choose to write a letter rather than an email).

When you play this out and really think it through, my belief is that we will go back to something very much like the oceanic feeling but for adults™ because linear language creates (and the constant chatter of our minds exacerbates) separateness as individuals “separate” from our environment.

Wait… What?

Let’s go back to some observations on language. But this time, let’s outline some of non-obvious observations:

First: Internal language frames our mindsets and internal dialogue as much as it frames a conversation with a friend.

*In other words, up until now, these thoughts expressed about things like Neuralink are predominantly concerned with communication as if it’s only a medium used between people. However, that is not the only way language is employed. It’s not even the predominant way it’s employed. It’s also coursing through your brain like the blood in your veins. It is the constant internal chatter that plays out scenarios in our heads before they happen. When not utilizing our lingual communication between others, we’re conversing with ourselves, chopping up what just happened, what might happen, what was said, what you will say in the future, etc.

*Language, in both internal and external communication, slices up the world into separate parts — like a subject, a verb, an adjective, an object and so on[3].

“Anne walks down the street”… Western language particularly emphasizes the separateness of a noun from a verb. “He” is separate from the “walking” — However, in Eastern languages, like Mandarin, nouns and verbs are often conjoined to convey the inseparability of the two.

*Ex. “The lighting flashes.” — It is only a matter of speech and modern English language that splits up this phrase into a subject and an verb. It’s such a strong notion, and affects how we view the world to such an extent because of our social conditioning, that the typical person understandably interprets this thing-event as a noun or subject acting in a way that produces a flash. But this is a linguistic illusion since there is no subject different from the verb. The lightning doesn’t “flash” — as there is no separation from the lightning and the flash. You cannot have lightning without the flash. You cannot have flashing without lightning.

*In visual observation, “a man walking down the street” is all one occurrence to our eyes — but in re-telling the story or talking about it in our heads, we separate these things because in linear communication, we must separate and chop up an occurrence into separate words and separate parts to tell a story verbally to a friend. Visually, it’s all one occurrence, but communicated verbally later, it necessarily becomes linear.

*As Joseph Campbell points out, stories, like language itself, massively influence, shape, and even hypnotize our perception of the world [4]. Like the person up on stage hypnotized into absolute conviction about something that isn’t there, language (nouns, verbs, linear communication) is the building block for story-telling (hero, opposition, conflict, victory in the context of potential tragedy), and these linear means of discussion or entertainment are as subtle as they are powerful in shaping the way we perceive the world (and our world).

*This “chopping” would be fine if it was limited to something as trivial as re-telling an event on your way to work or as seemingly inconsequential as a bedtime story from a parent. But that’s not where this framework-applied-to-the-world stops.

*Our obsession with language (to connect and to communicate with others) extends deeply into how we think about ourselves — how we tell ourselves “Oh wow, I did something stupid back there” or “Why can’t I be like her??” or “Why is this happening to me?”

*I, I, I… them, him, her… this, that, or the other happened to me. This lingual break up of the world leads to a view of “I’m separate from the environment and these things that are happening to me.”

*Instead of it all just “happening” in a dynamic, interconnected way in a way that an ecologist would observe biosphere.

Second: Language, a useful tool for future coordination, is utilized to an unhealthy degree in our minds to constantly coordinate the future.

*The dawn of modern human language began about 50,000 years ago, primarily driven by its usefulness in coordinating efforts or resources between multiple humans. However, since it’s the same primary tool we then adopt for inside our own heads, we tend to employ it quietly in our minds for that same future-oriented coordination.

*Idle hands + the possession of a hammer = everything is a nail.

*Therefore, in our idleness, like the hammer, we employ language to coordinate a little more than we need (“I should make a reservation for dinner”) and then a little more (“I should write that email or maybe I should find them in person”) and then a little more (“I wonder where we should move if we have kids”) until you accidentally hammer things that aren’t nails and then try to fix the mess by more hammering (“should I tell her that I’m not gonna take it anymore on Monday? What if there’s an earthquake? I should eat healthier!” ).

*Language is a decent servant and a terrible master. We become involved, and our wits and worries only have a coordination tool to interpret and solve the problems.

*This leads to an obsession about the future, leaving us less capable to truly absorb the present (since our hammer is just looking for more nails).

*In the case of a future world driven by a brain-connected interface, do you know what’s really good at logistics, multi-variable computing, and coordination? Software.

*This primary role of the mind and its relationship with language, will be a role that artificial intelligence and a brain-computer interface would be uniquely designed to perform much better than us.

*With “conceptual language”, the information communicated would be more complete, clear, and instantaneous.

*Today, a message is easily compromised by the two main principles in delivery: the messenger and the medium.

*Much of this is for the reasons mentioned above around (1) the difficulty to master or (2) the inherent clumsiness of language — but another way to highlight this is the advice we often give people speaking in front of a crowd: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

*Think about that for a second. The often-said cliche is an admission that the primary element of communication with others is not the information but rather the appearance and presentation of the message. In other words, confidence can mask a shaky message. Or said another way, a wavering delivery will nullify the value of a message, no matter the integrity of the information itself.

*This may be the case for many relevant reasons to verbal communication (and an audience’s capacity to absorb this kind of communication at length), but it’s no longer relevant for a world where the communication is 3-dimensional, full-formed, and instant — where there is no longer a constant battle or wage for my attention with your efficiency or lack there of with words. Instead of an Amazon package being delivered through a coffee straw, it would be instant “transmutation” of the complete thought, idea, or experience that you’re communicating.

*This departure from current forms of communication would then not lean on the messenger in the way that communication today requires an artful uploading and downloading of the idea in your head into the head of another (that implicitly requires several factors to align, like speaking the same language, articulation, attention, time, etc).

*This new world would be influenced by the most complete ideas — not the most charismatic messengers.

*This is significant for two reasons: the best and most complete ideas would be “transmuted” (more like a cold than current discourse) and the populist or sycophant would be outed immediately based on a lack of depth and completeness of their ideas. Like someone swindled into a viewpoint based on a “drip” of information and a belief and hope that there is a payoff, you would discover that the packaging is missing the package (shoutout to all the ‘Lost’ fans out there, or Scientologists dying to hear about Level “OT 8” after paying enough dues).

*These swindlers wouldn’t be pariahs by any means — they just wouldn’t be the dominant forces of narrative in the world we live in. You would just prefer ideas, coordination, or experiences that delivered the “package” completely and instantly.

More connection, more presence…

So what does this add up to? What would the post-verbal world look like?

A post-verbal world would be one with less separateness, of more complete ideas, spreading globally (and activating coordination for them) over weeks and months rather than years (or in the case of things like democracy or absolution of slavery; taking centuries to spread).

When you add up the compounding effects stated above, I believe we would live in more harmony with each other, dehypnotized from the idea that we are individual selves living “outside” of rather than “inside” the world around us — less distracted by inefficient and constant human coordination for the future (assisted by computational efficiency that does it for us). Like a software program (human coordination) running on inefficient hardware moving to extremely efficient hardware, it’s hard for me to imagine an important human vector that would not be impacted positively (coordination, efficiency, prosperity, peace, health, and obviously education to name a few).

Said another way, this could be as transformational of a leap for our species comparable to what we saw as we went from non-verbal to verbal. What verbal communication did for the cavemen, the tribe, the community — post-verbal communication would do for the now connected human race.

It obviously would not be a utopia free of death, disease, decay, or tragedy. Bad things would still happen.

But whatever this world would look like, we’d be in it together. If harmony is just a realized interdependence on each other’s well-being, efficient coordination of human logistics, and an aversion to plans and ideas that are of disservice to these two things, then maybe our current plague of poorly formed ideas (the world is flat), the inefficient communication of good ones (the world is round), and our perception of hyper-individual existence would be inoculated by this human-computer device that removes the veil. A veil that doesn’t cover our eyes, but one that covers our ears.

I want to be explicit in saying that I don’t have a dog in the fight here. I’m not involved in Neuralink or any effort that would gain from putting this view forward. I just can’t help imagining the full costs and benefits of how we communicate today and how we might tomorrow.

And when you think deeply and fully about the “costs” and what could hang in the balance if telepathic, conceptual communication was unlocked for the human race, you can’t help but to wish the companies and people working on this problem the best of luck. And when you look at the pace of technological advances, especially in computational power and network efficiency around communication (and their acceleration over the last 50 years), whether it’s 15, 50, or 150 years in the future, it’s hard not to feel like this direction is inevitable.

2,400 years ago, when Socrates was asked why he didn’t write anything down, he replied by saying that “writing is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind.”

The beauty of this brave, new, harmonized world would simply be this — that whatever exists in our connected and collective mind would never have to leave it.


[1] Our use of verbal language is about 80,000 years old, and since language today isn’t leaps and bounds more efficient than earlier forms of communication thousands of years ago, think of modern language as the last 5,000 years as written forms began to compliment spoken forms. [link]

[2] Some studies even show that body language and tone make up over 90% of the way we communicate with others, but we do not communicate ideas and coordination through these forms of communication [link].

[3] https://campuspress.yale.edu/jasonstanley/files/2016/02/Stanley-Language-in-20th-Century-qiaxwt.pdf

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell

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