The other day, as I was riding home from work, I had an interesting thought. One thing about riding as slowly as I do — you get plenty of time to think about stuff.
Although, when the wind is at my back, pretty much the only thought in my head is “Whee!” and when the wind is in my face the cursing leaves no space for other thought. However, during the non-raining wind-from-the-side portions of my ride, I had time to chew on an interesting thought.
It started somewhere on Homestead Avenue, when it occurred to me that the Information Age was the inevitable consequence of being an organism that uses language. Our brains are built to interpret the world around us, breaking it down into the symbols that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts. We are biologically hard-wired to process symbols that represent the world; we are as hungry for information as we are for food.
But we didn’t stop at reducing the world into symbols, we began to recreate the world, using those same symbols as the building blocks. Early religions might be the first recorded attempts at building a symbolic world on top of the observable one, but any good story is a new world.
Facing a rainy headwind while I pushed down Park Avenue (a pleasant street), those thoughts were forgotten for a while, but by the time I reached Bird they had grown. We are now creating worlds entirely out of symbols. Worlds built purely out of language. World of Warcraft is an obvious example.
While WoW is crude compared to the (presumably) atom-based world we occupy most of the time, it’s easy to imagine that as we build ever-more eloquent languages (in this case programming languages and the frameworks that provide them vocabulary, which in turn express the desires of designers who communicate with more traditional languages) we will create more “real” worlds built solely with language.
By the time I’d huffed over the Curtner Hump and turned into the cemetery, I came down to a core question: Is this what we set out to do a million years ago?
Did we grow brains that had language so we could build better worlds, or was the ability to communicate mundane information twisted to introduce fiction? Are those cave paintings we know so well simply recording history, or are they expressing something larger that we all understand — the desire to build new worlds using the symbols we developed to understand the physical world?
What happens, then, when the world is entirely composed of symbols? What comes next? Are we finished?