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The Weaponization of Language

Just a quick note to help people, particularly the Media in the United States, to better understand what it means when language is weaponized—and especially what it means in the context of connected digital communication networks. While these techniques have been refined over many years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, they are somewhat new to mainstream American politics. This is not to say that these techniques haven’t been used over the years, but generally they’re employed around the edges. It hasn’t been possible, until recently, to move them to the center of a political communication strategy.

Certain tools are designed as weapons, for example: guns, knives, clubs, brass knuckles, bombs, poison gas. Each of these tools is specially constructed to inflict a certain kind of harm on its target. Now here’s another list of tools: a cast-iron frying pan, a fireplace poker, a baseball bat, a car, a brick, and an electrical current. Each of these tools has a proper use—a set of uses that humans understand through habit. All of these non-weapons have been used to commit murder in some mystery novel. Part of solving the mystery involves a detective envisioning an ordinary tool expressing its potential as a deadly weapon.

When language is used as a weapon—it’s deployed to inflict the maximum possible damage. The usual response to language used in this way is to say that it is neither true nor proper. While this may be a reasonable approach to language used to communicate, it has no effect on language when used as a weapon. It’s the equivalent of saying that the blow inflicted by a frying pan to the head of the victim was not a proper use of frying pans.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising is due to the frequency with which it is broadcast. If you see or hear an ad ten times a day for three months, it’s likely you will remember it for the rest of your life. Most of us can recite ad copy we heard in our childhood even when the product has long since disappeared from the shelves. To maximize the effectiveness of weaponized language, it must have high frequency. In political campaigns this is usually accomplished through producing negative attack ads and buying lots of radio and television time.

In the age of cable news and connected digital social networks, another strategy is possible. An attack is constructed that will harm the target using metaphors, statements and images. In itself, this isn’t enough to assure the attack will be retweeted frequently and universally (by all sides) throughout cable news, newspapers and social media networks. Two elements must be added to the attack, the first is that it should be demonstrably false. This will cause many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack, and then explain why it is false. If the attack is on the veracity of the media itself, many will discount the explanation. The second added ingredient is that the attack must break with ordinary decorum, it must cross a moral line. This causes many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack and explain why it is immoral. Each of these media responses is the equivalent of decrying the improper use of a frying pan in committing an assault.

The media becomes complicit in the attack because it serves as the force multiplier that maximizes the harm. That’s how “playing the media” works. And as the media chases its tail on obviously false sensational headlines, it loses its credibility on the serious investigations it’s doing. When a President has immunity through Republican majority in Congress, a free press is needed more than ever. The attacks on the media have escalated and the media seems blind to its own role in amplifying the harm that is done.

Super Intelligence

Some people, some very smart people, believe that through the magic of genetic engineering, we'll soon have a new generation of “super intelligent” people. There may even be a legal requirement to optimize the designated genetic make-up of new humans. Sounds like a science fiction novel, but the technology is close to making this kind of scenario practical.

Of course, it would take a “super intelligent” person to create a new generation of “super intelligent” people. And certainly, replication of “super intelligence” would appear to be the intelligent goal. How will we ever solve the great problems that confront us without a greater and greater supply of super intelligent people?

Apparently, no one is working on a genetic model for creating super compassionate people. Mostly because super compassionate people aren't a dominant force in the science of gene editing. And, after all, compassion isn't going to solve global warming, seas filled with plastic or the sixth mass extinction.

I wonder what would happen if you took two planets and filled one with super intelligent people and the other with super compassionate people of varying intelligence? After a few hundred years had passed, which planet do you think you'd prefer to live on?


Talk UI: Pushing Your Buttons

Now that there are always-on audio interfaces to networked applications, we begin the conversation about “Talk UI.” In some number of houses there are devices listening and ready to execute commands. These commands and their acknowledgement have the form of a conversation between humans.

An optimistic vision of this interaction might be the computer on the television series “Star Trek.” A dystopian vision would be HAL in the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

At this moment in audio interfaces, we're closer to the bad handwriting translations of the Apple Newton, or the unintended word transformations of “auto-complete” in texting applications. We ask the audio interface a question and we get back a non-sequitur. We sigh, and type in a specific query.

I can get my Apple TV to show subtitles to a Danish television series by saying: “subtitles (pause) on.” But I can't say, “Siri, please turn the subtitles on.” That's because this isn't a conversational user interface. Words aren't words as they are generally used by humans. Words are buttons, they have specific meanings. The spoken sounds must mean just what the interaction designer chose them to mean, neither more nor less.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that's all.”

The Talk UI is “like” a conversation. It has some of the form of a conversation, while not actually being a conversation. We call it a “Conversational UI” to sell it to the masses. They will be disappointed unless they understand that this new thing is just pushing buttons with sound.

The surface area of today's sound buttons is too small. They're hard to press. Creating a larger surface area is the usability challenge for this new interface.


Was Blind, But Now, I See

Many say, this is the future. As we gaze toward the horizon, waiting patiently for the next new thing to appear, we cover our eyes. In the photograph above, some focus on Mr. Zuckerberg striding confidently and unencumbered by direct network inputs, but my eyes drift toward those whose eyes are captured by the technology.

It's a sea of true believers–alone together. What are they seeking? The moment they believe they've found it; that is the moment of true danger.


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me….

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now, I see.


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