More on post-symbolic communication

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Jaron Lanier’s answer to the 2007 Edge question, What are you optimistic about?, is, predictably enough, post-symbolic communication. But the more I hear about it, the more I’m overwhelmed by the grandeur and sheer magic of the vision. As beautiful a dream as I’ve ever seen.

One extravagant idea is that the nature of communication itself might transform in the future as much as it did when language appeared. This is not easy to imagine, but here’s one approach to thinking about it: I’ve been fascinated by the potential for “Post-symbolic Communication” for many years. This new style of interpersonal connection could become possible once large numbers of people become virtuosos at improvising what goes on in Virtual Reality.

We are virtuosos at spoken language. Adults speak with what seems like no effort at all, even though everyday chats might be the most complicated phenomena ever observed. I see no reason why new virtuosities in communication could not appear in the future, though it’s hard to specify a timeframe.

Suppose you’re enjoying an advanced future implementation of Virtual Reality and you can cause spontaneously designed things to appear and act and interact with the ease of sentences pouring forth during an ordinary conversation today.

Why bother? It’s a reasonable hunch. Words have done so much for people — so alternatives to them with overlapping but distinct functions ought to lead to new ways of thinking and connecting.

An alternative to abstraction might arise — the possibility of expression through a fluid and capable concreteness. Instead of the word “house” you could conjure up a particular house. How do you even know it’s a house without using the word? Instead of falling back on whatever the word “house” means, you might toss around a virtual bucket that turns out to be very large on the inside- and contains a multitude of house prototypes. In one sense this “fuzzy” collection is more precise than the word, in another, less so. It is different.

If all this sounds a little too fantastic or obscure, here’s another approach to the same idea using more familiar reference points. Imagine a means of expression that is a cross between the three great new art forms of the 20th century: jazz improvisation, computer programming, and cinema. Suppose you could improvise anything that could be seen in a movie with the speed and facility of a jazz improviser. What would that mean for the sense of connection between you and someone you love?

The most valuable optimisms are Infinite Games, and imagining that new innovations as profound as language will come about in the future of human interaction is an example of one.

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