Why do we want to bypass language?
Spoiler alert: we don’t.
I read with interest Mark Dingemanse’s article, “The space between our heads: Brain-to-brain interfaces promise to bypass language. But do we really want access to one another’s unmediated thoughts?”
I agree with Dingemanse’s take on the value of language, and the role of language in what makes us human. But in many ways, his focus seems to be more on the need for (mental) privacy, and less on the messy joy that is language. We don’t want to bypass language, not only because it’s essential to what makes us human, but also because it is in the messy stuff of language that we create our worlds and find our ideas.
I’m struck by the fact that so much of the discourse about the need for direct brain-to-brain interface is wrapped up in a fear of mistakes or a desire to eliminate mistakes. This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of mistakes. After all, it is in making mistakes that we learn. It is in failed attempts at explaining that we begin to understand. Mistakes should be sought out, not avoided. Valorized, not eliminated.
This view of mistakes applies as much to communication as it does to any other human endeavor. Certainly, direct brain interface will have many important and useful applications (starting with treatment for brain injuries, for example), but enabling interaction free from miscommunication is not one of them.
There’s a parallel here to generative AI…
Some people tout generative AI as a way to farm out our writing tasks. “Let AI write for you,” they suggest. But as so many people have said, and I often repeat, “writing is thinking.” If you’re not writing, you’re not thinking.
To my mind, this is similar to the idea that having to use language is itself a burden in need of a workaround. The idea that there’s value in “bypassing language altogether” is to me a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans interact, and of how humans understand our world. Language is at the center of those activities.
If we bypass language, we lose much more than we gain.