The Economies of Language in Digital Space/s


  • Sheena Calvert


As language (both writing/speech) rapidly changes due to on-going developments in speech recognition systems, text-to-speech and chat bots, this paper focuses on the various attempts to synthesize, and mechanize language over time: to submit it to the logical, rational, and mechanical: to atomize and/or render it as pure code. This involves looking afresh at the kinds of philosophical questions these developments raise with respect to language – as a ”˜human’ phenomenon – which is increasingly being mediated by technology. The question – what is language when it is made by a machine? – touches upon ethical concerns; the notion of linguistic agency, and the shifting relationship between language and thought. While attempts at synthesising speech can be traced back as far as Roger Bacon (1200s) and Christian Kratzenstein, (1770s) more recent attempts to mechanize speech include early 20th c. mechanisms for encoding speech, such as the 1939 World’s Fair ”˜Parallel Bandpass Vocoder’ and ”˜Voder,’ (1940). [1] Alan Turing’s work with ”˜Universal’ computing languages, and their implications for AI, as well as the recent Siri application for the iPhone are more recent examples of the move towards forms of language which are removed from the body and rendered through code. The claim is that such mechanical interventions into language, both foregrounds and problematizes our relationship with language as a primary human technology. This paper proposes that we might want to pay particular attention to the changing forms of language as they are experienced/mediated through such technologies, and to the implications for identity, human agency and the larger ”˜moral economies’ they imply.

  1. “At the 1939 World’s Fair a machine called a Voder was shown. A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognisable speech. No human vocal cords entered into the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electronically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker.” Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” in The Atlantic Monthly, 1945, 94. For photographic documentation also see: (assessed October 20th 2013).