Emerging technologies always generate language seeking to describe the most fundamental human processes in their own terms, providing specific imagery for understanding the world, each other and ourselves.
The advent of writing and the advances of literacy between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC gave rise to an understanding of the world as grounded in word and discourse. The philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period the Axial Age. New ways of thinking appeared in Europe, India, Persia and China. The universal religions emerged around the same time. For the Greeks, it was the intelligible and intelligent logos, reason, the ground of being. For the Old Testament, it was the Tablets of the Law. Sacred scriptures replaced archaic, oral-exclusive religion. The paradigm of the written word became a model for thinking about the divine and about the relationship between humans and gods.
In the West, the advances in literacy fuelled the fascination with writing in the medieval period. In the Divine Comedy, Dante imagined the universe as a bound book: “In its profundity I saw—ingathered and bound by love into one single volume— what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…'” The book metaphor is totalizing, seeking to explain our place in the world.
In our age, digital technology creates its own imagery and mythology. Building on a neo-Cartesian dualism between mind and body, digital tech generates a vocabulary seeking to describe human beings in tech-intrinsic terms: our memory as a hard drive, the brain as CPU, the body as mainframe, personhood as hardwired to malleable software.
Of course, tech-inspired imagery is not something peculiar to technology – it is peculiar, essential even, to human beings. Our ability to bestow transcendent meaning on the tools we use, our ability to move beyond the rules of the game to generate new symbols, new rules and new games, finally our capacity for self-surprise, is what makes us unique.
We may be an open book or a marvellous piece of software. We are neither because we are all.