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Heisenberg, The Internet, & Linguistic Friction

Using the internet is easy enough and can be taught to pretty much anybody. Explaining how the internet works is a whole other task. Where is it? Where does it come from? How is it all connected? It’s easy to think about the internet as existing in some “other” space that isn’t connected to where we are physically. We just go on the computer and the internet is there, we’re connected to an intangible space beyond space. But to understand something, let’s think about the internet as a neighborhood. There’s the internet as a whole, that we connect to using our wifi or ethernet cable that’s like the highway that goes right into town.

After that, every single page is one building, all on one street or another, and each street would have a name, like a URL. This gets pretty literal, as the internet does operate a bit like this, in the sense that everything is located in a certain space, and all you have to do is type the correct address and it’s like a self driving car — it takes you there with no other effort on your part. Super convenient right?

What if, like the internet, we thought about language this way as well? Our brain is the entire internet, and we search across our brain to find just the right word to say in every context. We have words we’ll never forget and use every day, like a very, very long bar of bookmarks. Then there’s words we’ve only heard of in passing, we’re not as familiar with, like websites we’ve visited one time to read an article, never gone back, and now we can’t remember the URL. Then there’s the long list of words we’ve never heard. Websites we’ll never go to.

If we extend this back to the neighborhood analogy, language can be literally mapped out onto physical space. Every word occupies a space and sentences are just routes on a map. Going from place to place to place to create a specific chain of words, and the most important part — it’s replicable. If you’re telling somebody to meet you at a certain bar, they know exactly where to go, and you don’t have to go together. It’s a designated spot that’s mutually understood, just like words. When somebody says a specific word, you know what they’re talking about. You understand the meaning that they’re trying to convey. If you’ve read this far into the article, you’re following what I’m saying and you’ve known the meaning I’m taking from my head and putting into yours.

Similarly, we can say a word and we know what meaning is being conveyed without taking the mental journey together. Words are landmarks, mental checkpoints we can reference to relate a concept in the real world.

Words mean things and when we chain them together they have even further specific meanings. If we asked somebody to meet us on the corner of 2 streets, we know where to go, but are they going to be exactly on the corner? More on one side or another? How do we know what “on the corner” means? When we say it, we’re confident that the other person has understood, and the other person is confident that they understood what you meant without any question.

Words are the same way. When we say something, the meaning is basically understood. We’re confident that the word navigates people to the objective meaning in their brain, an image of what it means. But words can be misunderstood, and when there’s a misunderstanding, our natural explanation is to use more words to further explain the meaning in our head. Trying to explain in minute detail everything that we mean so that others understand exactly what we mean would be exhausting. Getting the exact meaning we have in our head to the other person makes language less usable. Every new word added to the sentence gives a new place for the chain to break, in the same way that every new point in a scavenger hunt introduces a point at which we can get lost. We want to use more words so that we can say exactly what we mean, but using more words also introduces more places where we can be misunderstood.

This is where the Uncertainty Principle comes in. In particle physics, measuring a particle’s exact location and its momentum means giving up one for the other. You can know its location, or its momentum, but not both. In the same way, language can be either precise or usable, but not fully both. There is a medium that we settle on which is what we use now, but think about trying to make your language more precise — it makes it less usable, and vice versa. Trying to convey exactly 100% of what you mean would be incredibly time consuming and difficult, which means that every time you’re trying to illustrate that concept again, you have to do the same thing. So we settle for 99%. We are content with somebody else knowing approximately what we mean, because it usually works, it doesn’t exhaust us, and we don’t mind that somebody won’t know exactly what we mean. We don’t mind when we say “meet me on the corner of Walnut and Main street” and we end up waving at our friend from across the street, but there is something lost there. There is a linguistic friction that is lost in transit, that we never think to recover.

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