Friday, September 09, 2011

What a Rosetta Stone Can't Do

My buddy Todd posted this the other day, with this note on facebook:
Imagine what might be possible if we had a Rosetta Stone to help us actually "hear" what others really meant, instead of what they were saying.
I saw the Rosetta Stone last week, at the British Museum. It's got an astonishing story, having been decoded by an Englishman and a Frenchman, the latter having quite a tendency to faint. Not that I blame him; if I were the first person in over 1500 years who could read the inscription on some monuments, I'd faint too.

Remarkable as the rosetta stone is, I'm afraid that it won't do what Todd's posting wants for at least two reasons:

  1. The Rosetta Stone only showed equivalent sentences in different scripts (ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, ancient Greek); we need to go to a much higher level.

    To describe what I mean by a higher level, let me first describe some lower levels. In the 1980s, the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO) defined a reference model for computer communications. Lower levels described signaling techniques, like this one, describing an encoding technique at the "physical layer":

    ...a logic 0 is indicated by a 0 to 1 transition at the centre of the bit and a logic 1 is indicated by a 1 to 0 transition at the centre of the bit.
    A higher layer might describe how data are presented -- e.g., is "Ô" represented as 11010100 (iso 8859-1) or 11000011 10010100 (UTF-8) or 00100110 00110000 01111000 01000100 00110100 00111011 (i.e., "&0xD4;"), etc.

    A yet higher layer might specify how semantics are communicated, e.g., if we want a file named "foo" to instead be named "bar", do we say:

    • mv foo bar
    • rename foo,bar
    • os.rename('foo', 'bar')
    As "mv foo bar" is higher than "a 0 to 1 transition at the centre of the bit", so deriving human intentions between individuals is a higher level than translating between "tres heureux de faire votre connaissance" and "delighted to make your acquaintance."
  2. Even if our intentions could be translated, they're in conflict because of The Fall.

    A buyer for example has the intention of paying the lowest possible price for a box of goods, whereas the seller has the intention of getting the highest price. We can translate the intention, but we all knew that anyway.

    What if "Anna" wants a world where we pay teachers more if they have to work harder to educate tougher kids who have less parental support, but "Michelle" wants to pay teachers more when they work in districts with higher property tax revenues? Is it reasonable that a richer district should be able to pay its teachers more? Is it reasonable that among teachers in the same county, teachers with harder jobs should be paid less than those with easier jobs?

    Suppose "Billy" wants a world where their companies can destroy competition by exploiting monopoly power but "Sherm" thinks government should restrict what he calls "anticompetitive" behavior. What do these have in common?

    How about if "Phyllis" wants popular media to affirm family values (e.g., marriage commitments that survive conflict, hardship—even betrayal), but "Jane" wants to show "the world as it is" including the behavior of typical US college students, the high US divorce rate, etc.?

    Besides conflicts like this, how about the observation that we've had decades now of consumers fighting workers and finally winning? Even within one person, the desires/goals are terribly mixed up.

I don't think the answer is to give up and die, but neither do is the answer as simple as clearly communicating our intentions and goals. I'd like to think that if like-minded people will listen to each other in search of common ground (think "marriage counseling"), this could make some things better, but I'm afraid there will never be a "silver bullet."

I'll be happy to be proven wrong!

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