The new tower of Babel

Having been ill for a couple of days this week has left me completely zonked. This resulted in a rather bizarre case of insomnia which brought me through Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 last night. Uh, Spoiler alert!

Babel-17 reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Both books use the idea of languages that function as programming languages on the human mind – both supposedly heavily inspired by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Also, both books share the annoying trait of having main characters who simply can do no wrong. The protagonist of “Babel-17”, the galaxy-renowned poet, linguist, cryptographer, space captain extraordinaire Rydra Wong is at 26 able to routinely translate stuff into Basque and a dozen other languages, shoot bad guys and reprogram herself with the mental programming language code-named Babel-17.

The central character of “Snow Crash” is called Hiro Protagonist (har, har) and is a master computer hacker, greatest swordsman on the planet, one of the inventors of the current instance of the internet as well as being suave and cool.

It’s just too much. Much better are the other characters, the curious young skater girl Y.T. in “Snow Crash” and Rydra Wong’s crew in “Babel-17” who all seem much more human and worthwhile compared to the demi-godly abilities and attitudes of the protagonists.

Anyway, the central idea of a symbolically precise language focused on exact expression of statements is obviously inspired from computer programming languages which also have been linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from time to time.

There are thousands of computer programming languages – some of which have been used for almost 50 years and have as organic and vital a history of use as most living languages. Some people do think of these plentiful ways of interacting with the computer as a new tower of Babel – it would indeed be true Science Fiction if they managed to combine that into something biological that would “run” on people.

I guess most anthropologists have given up hope of finding those secret underlying patterns that shape the common human life experience. That was actually the main goal of most anthropologists up until and including the structuralists. Nowadays, I guess we feel lucky if we touch upon something that may have wider application than just those narrow fields of study that we have submerged ourselves in independently of each other.

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