Douglas Engelbart (noted in the link as having been strongly influenced by Vannevar Bush, which is quite obvious when you read As We May Think and Augmenting Human Intellect back to back) covers a wide range of ideas in his paper Augmenting Human Intelligence. You see Greenblatt’s wonder (If he is a layman, his concept of what provides this sophisticated capability may endow the machine with a mysterious power to sweep information through perceptive and intelligent synthetic devices.), a heavy nod to Bush via predictions of future technology (Tablets, cell phones), a host of turtles running through the paper (If we ask ourselves where that intelligence is embodied, we are forced to concde that it is elusively distributed throughout a hierarchy of functional processes – a hierarchy whose foundation extends down into processes below the depth of our comprehension), and a strong thread of the synergism between science fiction and science fact. But what I really wanted to talk about was this:
However, Korzybski and Whorf (among others) have argued that the language we use affects our thinking to a considerable extend. They say that a lack of words for some types of concepts makes it hard to express those concepts, and thus decreases the likelihood that we will learn much about them. If this is so, then once a language has begun to grow and be used, it would seem reasonable to suspect that the language also affects the evolution of the new concepts to be expressed in that language.
Apparently there are counter-arguments to this: e.g., if a concept needs to be used often but its expression is difficult, then the language will evolve to ease the situation. However, the studies of the past decade into what are called “self-organizing” systems seem toe be revealing that subtle relationships among its interacting elements can significantly influence the course of evolution of such a system. If this is true, and if language us (as it seems to be) a part of a selforganizing system, then it seems probable that the state of a language at a given time strongly affects its own evolution to a succeeding state.
I wish that Engelbart, as well as Koryzbski and Whorf were able to comment on a recent press release by Columbia University Teacher’s College, which found that the Piraha, sn obscure and small Amazonian tribe, has no conception of numbers. Until now, no one has definitively answered Whorf’s basic question of whether or not people in one culture cannot understand a concept from another because they have no words for it. While it’s debatable whether or not the new research puts any nails in theoretical coffins, it seems to strongly indicate that the opposition to Whorf’s hypothesis, that language exerts a force in its evolution; after all, as Engelbart notes, most linguistic changes since Shakespeare’s time have been minor changes where concepts are forced onto existing words, rather than the coining of new words (creating a verb from “google” being a notable exception). Anyhow, I digress.
What is interesting about the Piraha is that they seem to confirm the neo-Whorfian hypothesis proposed by Engelbart, that the language used by a culture and the capability for effective intellectual activity are directly affected during their evolution by the means which individuals control the external manipulation of symbols. It seems that they do prove that our means of externally manipulating symbols influences how we think and the language we use; after all, it’s the Piraha adults that are unable to significantly change their language to grasp a conception of numbers and math – the Piraha children had no problem with either. (Of course, this does lead to a host of potential confounding variables, such as diet’s effect on the developing brain and the ability to learn a language later in life, for of course math is as much a language as any other. It also seems to shed some doubt on the idea that the brain doesn’t code freeze itself at a certain point in life, but I’m digressing again…)
However, as much as the Piraha could cast support towards a neo-Whorfian hypothesis, one must wonder if they instead undermine the entire foundation of Engelbart’s theory. After all, while the Piraha have made steps in Engelbart’s listed historical progression of the development of our intellectual capabilities, they do so in an out of order way that only covers two of the four categories listed. The Piraha have obviously mastered concept manipulation, to abstract ideas and situations, allowing the development of general concepts, and of manual, external symbol manipulation which largely gives graphical representation to symbol manipulation. But they have not grasped the second stage (the others mentioned being stage one and three, respectively); the Piraha seem to lack basic symbol manipulation that lets them differentiate a single sheep from seventy, and they certainly do not have the fourth stage of automated external symbol manipulation, which allows the use of technological devices to rapidly move symbollic data before a users eyes.
Ultimately the Piraha are going to be curiousities for those who study linguistic formation, and won’t have a massive impact on the overriding theoretical conceptions behind Engelbart’s H-LAM/T system; however, when any underlying theoretical foundation is shaken by a new discovery, it’s worth analyzing the overarching concept to see if there are flaws. In this particular case, the Piraha seem to be a side-anomaly that doesn’t take away from Engelbart’s augmenting intelligence idea; after all, with his neo-Whorfian hypothesis he’s created a model of symbol manipulation that is applicable to his particular, Western culture. It’s only when you expand outside the cultural loop Engelbart operates in that his conceptions begin to become problematic.