by Julian Neuer
(Listen to a podcast of this story here)
“People can be forgiven for overrating language.
Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see.
[But] thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker.”
A few hours after N. learns of the archeologists’ discovery, the dream comes. As usual, the sounds and visions in the dream are vivid, not in the least dreamlike.
For want of a better word, we refer to N.’s experience as a dream, although N. himself would probably object. Actually, he would object to any word that we might choose, because he does not use words at all. N.’s mind (if we may call it a mind, but this is the very point of this caveat: to fully appreciate N.’s experience, we must learn not to place too much value on words) — N.’s mind deals in pure concepts, in nonverbal mentalese, in the stuff of ideas themselves, much higher on the abstraction scale than sound waves emitted by the respiratory tract of animals, or ink markings strewn on sheets of dead vegetable tissue.
The experience that we refer to as N.’s dream is in fact a process that we would find unimaginable, a process whereby N.’s mind communicates freely with hundreds of thousands of other intelligent minds, now in the same mental state as N., the state we have agreed to refer to as a dream. In such a state, concepts (not words, remember) flow instantly from individual to individual, ideas germinate, grow and reproduce, and the ecology of the collective subconscious unfolds according to laws and principles that we, poor babblers of verbal gibberish, would liken to telepathy or just plain magic.
Well, a few hours after N. learns of the archeologists’ discovery, the dream comes. As usual, the sounds and visions in the dream are vivid, not in the least dreamlike. At the beginning, N. finds himself in a vast savannah, at the center of a flat world with equidistant horizons. He looks to the side and sees columns of white smoke rising up to the blue sky in irregular patterns. N. now realizes there is a logic to the patterns. What he sees is a very primitive means of communication. N. is sure that the smoke signals mean something, but he does not know what, nor is he really interested.
N. is startled by a clap of thunder that booms all around the savannah. The sound, however, does not die out as proper thunder should; instead, the continuous roar gradually changes into a rhythmic, quick-tempo beat; after a while, another beat emerges, lower in frequency and slower in tempo. The two aural threads combine and revolve around each other in hypnotic fashion. They are puffs of sound, so to speak. Like the smoke signals, they elicit in N. the same certainty: someone is using these primitive instruments to communicate. N. does not know what the meaning is, nor is he really interested.
Now the sound of the log drums rises in pitch, and the tempo quickens. So much, in fact, that the drumbeats now sound like a succession of beeps, all equal in tone but varying in duration, a rapid firing of tedious tweets, like a flock of brain-washed birds. (But N., for all the vast arsenal of pure concepts available to his collective dreamer mind, has no idea of what “brain-washing” or “birds” are, and would be at a loss to grasp the simile.) N. does not know what the beeps mean, nor is he really interested.
The savannah disappears, and N. wakes up. His brain quickly switches to the wakeful network, where the collective mind is still discussing the object the archeologists found yesterday. More accurate descriptions of the object are available today; it is obviously artificial: a disc whose core, made of silicon, contains myriads of intricate micropatterns etched on its surface, protected under a metal coating. There are thousands of rectangular micropatterns printed on the disc, with even smaller patterns inscribed in them.
N. learns that the object has been dated at over 09000 years in the past. This is an impressive time span, even for the advanced collective mind that N. is part of. The disc comes from an era long before the collective mind started to evolve, from a time when humans had to store and communicate information using physical media located outside their minds and their bodies. N. and the collective mind remember the primitive concept of electronic computers, and the even more primitive concept of verbal communication, an artificial, unreliable layer of arbitrary visual and aural symbols intended to convey ideas, but whose ultimate effect was to obfuscate the very concepts they were supposed to express.
The verbal condition seems primitive and ridiculous to N. and his telepathically connected fellow minds. He can’t help thinking of the creators of the disc as inferior creatures. The collective mind briefly considers the possibility that the creators of the disc did not even belong to an intelligent species in any present sense of the term. Then, the collective mind concludes that the patterns on the disc are verbal symbols and obviously mean something, but their meaning is of no great importance, and the disc is quickly forgotten.
The Rosetta Project is one of the many fascinating activities of the Long Now Foundation. Information about the real Rosetta disc can be found here.
Part of Jared Diamond’s thesis in his book “The Third Chimpanzee” is that the advent of verbal language among humans played a decisive role in what he calls the “great leap forward” (the stage in human history, about 60,000 years ago, when innovation and art at last emerged). We can conjecture that a future switch from words to “nonverbal mentalese” for human communication will usher in an equally drastic leap forward, a linguistic singularity, so to speak, at the cost of language as we know it today.
The epigraph is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Mentalese” in Steven Pinker’s book “The Language Instinct”.
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Photo of Rosetta disc from http://blog.longnow.org/02011/03/02/a-rosetta-disk-is-on-public-display-in-the-university-of-colorado-boulder-libraries-special-collection/.