What’s in a wor(l)d?

Blogged by John Battelle, the interview with Ramesh Jain in the latest Ubiquity reveals some interesting ideas about the ‘future of search’ meme, but it also contains an unintended warning to people who don’t re-read spoken (as opposed to emailed) interviews, or expect editorial support.

Here’s the passage, which is, of course grin, about language.

UBIQUITY: Would I be wrong in saying that the essence of what you’re doing is trying to get beyond language?

JAIN: That’s very correct. I think one of my favorite books, which I love and quote a lot, is a famous book by S. I. Hayakawa, “Languages (sic) in Thought and Action,” in which he makes the point that it’s amazing how some arbitrary noises and some scribbles on paper started to make meaning to us. It’s amazing that we all agree that some noise is going to be presenting some particular thing or some particular concept. And similarly it’s amazing that we agree that such-and-such particular scribbles are going to be representing this and that real thing. Another person who had great insights on these issues is Carl Popper. Popper started talking about word one, word two, and word three. Where word one is the real word, word two is what concepts and what mechanisms you learn and have in your head, and word three is the model you build using word two about word one. And those things become very exciting because what we don’t see — which is word two (what we have in our head) — is a lot more complex and sophisticated than our language allows. And that’s how we sometimes fail to find the words to represent what we want to say. Language allows us to represent some of the things that become a lot more explicit and a lot clearer. Language is a knowledge representation language.

I guess Jain was speaking live since the transcriber got Carl wrong (it’s Karl), but more importantly managed to hear Jain’s utterances about Popper’s World 1, 2 and 3 (philosophical concepts) as word 1, etc..

What anyone understood from “word three is the model you build using word two about word one” is anyone’s guess. Maybe it was because they were talking about language that Jain/Popper’s ‘world’ morphed (almost understandably if you didn’t catch the reference) into Ubiquity’s ‘word’. Maybe it was because of Jain’s pronunciation. Whatever the cause, the result is incomprehensible. And the moral must be, make sure you design and implement an editorial process if you don’t understand what your interviewee is talking about. This should include at least a ‘speaker’s cut’.

Just for the record, Karl Popper said:

“If we call the world of ‘things’ – of physical objects – the first world, and the world of subjective experience the second world, we may call the world of statements in themselves the third world (world 3)… I regard books and journals and letters as typically third world objects, especially if they develop and discuss a theory… I regard the third world as being essentially the product of the human mind. It is we who create third-world objects.”

In other words, World 3 is surely what we now call content, the stuff we increasingly use machinery to process As Popper suggested:

“human evolution proceeds, largely, by developing new organs outside our bodies or persons… instead of growing better memories and brains, we grow paper, pens, pencils, typewriters, dictaphones, the printing press, and libraries…the latest development (used mainly in the support of argumentative activities) is the growth of computers” (Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach, 1972)


Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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