Language is a Cognitive Technology

Making the rounds is a story out of the MIT news office about the Piraha tribe whose language does not include any counting numbers. They do have the concepts of more than and greater than and the concepts of few and many. Counting isn't a useful skill for them.

What is most intriguing to me is not the missing counting concepts but this odd quote from the end of the article:
One other discovery of the project is that the Piraha can perform exact matching tasks as long as there is no memory component to them, but once there is a memory component, they approximate their matches. This suggests that language is a cognitive technology that aids humans in memory tasks.

That is an interesting phrase to me: language is a cognitive technology.

Programming languages represent cognitive tools to work with a computer. That is definitely true. If you can consider language itself a technology of the mind or a cognitive tool that is an intriguing idea. Is your ability to only use one language or one programming language akin to only being able to use a screw driver?

If we can consider language itself a technology then we have an interesting new time-line for the progress of technology. We can go back to prehistory tracing the advent of the basic concepts of mathematics building up to today's computers which ostensibly hold the fruit of tens of thousands of years of cognitive technological effort.

And this begs me to question... what if we had started on the wrong path all those millenia ago. What if there are better cognitive platforms to build our systems of thought on top of but we couldn't explore them because our tools of cognition effectively created a platform of thought that prevented us exploring other methods of thinking. There could be ways of thinking and computing we can't even look directly at because they are so alien to us.

This idea cuts both ways. It tells me that if a paradigm is too far removed from mainstream thought it could die because not enough minds can (or will) adopt it. That means there are undoubtedly modern linguistic paradigms that are limiting but also unavoidably entrenched. This is good and bad. One language helps people to be mobile even as it limits them.

Consider how English is changing as speakers in many countries begin to change English to match the paradigms of the local tongues it mingles with. The resultant language may become a world tongue called Panglish in some breathless articles. It's all speculation right now.

But, we see this all the time in Programming languages. We see programmers transplanted from one language into another that bring with them the idioms of the languages they left behind. When this becomes laughable is when what is changing is far more than syntax but entire ways of thinking through problems that are being butchered by forcing the new language to work like the old one.

Here is a counter intuitive idea, but, some limitations are actually liberating. When children play in an open field they will cluster together. If you fence in an area larger than what they are actually occupying they will spread out to fill the space. The same is true about how you think about things.

Too broad a programming framework means that you can't effectively address any specific problem. It means you have too wide open a field. Instead the more a framework leads you to an answer the faster you will move toward a goal. Too efficient and limiting of a framework and you can't steer toward an appropriate design and must instead work around your framework.

Think of it as a volume of space where each point represents a system design. Your framework is like a channel or road driving you toward a region of all the possible system designs you can imagine. There is a volume inside that huge space of all possible systems that contains designs that fulfill your requirements (stated and otherwise) and your framework drives you in the direction of a handful of these. If your framework is too strict there could be a problem where the volume of answers lie in one direction and your framework drives you in another.

That would be an impedance mismatch between the problem and the framework. You would need to modify the problem or the framework to bring them into concert. Or you would have to abandon your framework entirely.

Most of us today are working in a world where our frameworks are pulling us toward solutions that are wholly web-based. That is just a fact of what is in fashion today. It isn't wrong either. The web will finally disassociate the cognitive and the physical. Just as MP3 is slowly killing the CD so too will the web slowly kill off certain legacy computing paradigms.

What do the Piraha know and can think about that we can't? Perhaps they have some insights of genius that are not evident to us who are encumbered with numbered thoughts? I wonder how many of us are like the Piraha happy in our own world but are fast colliding with a world that is driven by new thoughts and ideas utterly alien to us. As alien as numbers are to the Piraha the concepts behind cloud computing and massively parallel computing systems are headed our way. What will the programming languages that help us get there look like? How far off course have we drifted along in the channels of thought carved by our programming infrastructure?

It's just a thought.