Math and the End of the Written Word
Consider this a thought experiment. Suppose, just suppose, that by the year 2050, the written word ceases to exist because of new technologies that allow us to communicate directly between computers and the human brain. I know, it sounds crazy, and maybe it is crazy … but this is a thought experiment.
If someone had told you, fifteen years ago, that in 2008 the entire world would be connected to a vast amount of information via a network of computers, that we could access that information-rich world with a device that fits in the palm of your hand, and that we would be able to do almost anything in a virtual world that we can do in the real world, would you have believed them? The year 2050 is 42 years away – what is the likelihood we can even imagine what changes are in store for us?
Last summer, I attended a session at the World Future Conference called “The end of the written word?” which consisted of a panel of speakers and then some Q & A. Will Crossman (from CompSpeak 2050) was the first speaker and he started off with his “punchline” so to speak. He is completely convinced that sensory, interactive, multi-modal, voice-driven, visual-driven, computers are going to make text obsolete. His claim is that over the next decades we are going to rapidly replace reading, writing, and all language itself with speech, video, graphics, and direct communication from our brain to computers. Actually, on this last point, there were many sessions I attended that cited recent experiments in technologies like fMRI that will lead to the ability for direct mind-to-computer communication (without necessarily damaging the skull).
Crossman asked us, “what is the essence of writing that is unique to writing?” His answer: You are storing information by writing it down. You are retrieving it when you read it. It is an ancient information technology for storing and retrieving information. At this point, I am thinking to myself “well, if writing is simply an ancient form of information technology, so is speech!”
If you consider that writing is just a technology, and we usually replace old technologies with new technologies, then one has to at least consider what happens when (if?) writing becomes obsolete.
Now for our thought experiment (if that wasn’t already enough for you).
Almost the entire field of mathematics is built on writing, notation, graphs, diagrams, and symbologies. Many advancements in mathematics occurred when the “technology” of writing was invented. More advancements in mathematics (like Calculus) happened with the invention of just the right notation. What happens if we (the human race) lose the ability to grok the written word? What if we abandon writing for direct mind-to-brain communication? Such communication would mean that we are always capable of accessing a computer – a computer running software like Mathematica, Sage, or the like. Then, it seems to reason, the computer would be able to help us perform any kind of mathematical analysis.
Do we simply not study mathematics anymore except as a historical artifact (like Latin) or as a branch of philosophy? Does mathematics evolve into something that we cannot currently fathom? Is there something at the core of mathematics that is teachable only by humans? Is it critical thinking? Logical thinking?
Just humor me for 60 seconds and try to imagine the subject of algebra without using any written symbols. Without the written word, what do we teach in algebra, precalculus, and calculus?
To me, the heart of mathematics for the general population is learning to recognize patterns, to identify subtle differences, to contrast and compare structures, to categorize what you see and apply appropriate algorithms or procedures.
Even if you think that this “end of the written word” thing is only the remotest of remote possibilities, you have to admit that it is interesting (or disturbing) to think about what is at the core of mathematics if you remove the ability to write.