Culture Magazine

What’s Computation? What’s Literary Computation?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Continuing a line of thought from yesterday… More thinking out loud.
I’m interested in both of the title questions. But, for the purposes of this post, I’m interested in the first question mainly because I figure that thinking about it will help me answer the second question. That’s the one that really interests me.
Concerning that first question, as far as I can tell, it’s under investigation. Yes, we’ve been doing calculation for like years and years and centuries and even longer. But the emergence of modern computing technology involves more than just packaging already existing computational know-how into new physical devices. The act of packaging computation into those devices has forced us to re-think computation, and we’re still working on it.
As for literary computing, by which I mean the computational processes underlying literary texts, that is little more than a dream. For the most part, we have to invent it. We can’t just take some off-the-shelf (OTS) computing tech and applying to literary texts.
Where I’m currently going is that literary form is computational. I don’t know how to get there, but I figure a way of starting is to think about ordinary conversation as computational in kind.
How so?
Simulation and Phenomena
This is tricky. There are those who think that whatever the brain does, it’s computational in nature. I might even be one of those on one day out of ten. If that’s the case, then of course computation is computational. THAT doesn’t interest me.
What makes this tricky is that digital computers can be used to simulate many different phenomena. That doesn’t mean that those phenomena are themselves computational. It is one think to simulate an atomic reaction on a computer and another thing entirely to initiate one in a reactor or a bomb. The physical phenomenon is one thing; its computational simulation is something else.
That’s clear enough. Where things get murky is when we’re talking about minds and brains. Walter Freeman, for example, used computers to simulate the dynamics of neural systems. Does that mean that the physical process being enacted by those neurons is itself a computational process? Some would say, yes, but I suspect that Freeman would say, no, it’s not computational. It’s something different. That is, Freeman makes the same distinction between physical phenomenon and simulation that the physicist or nuclear engineer makes in the case of nuclear reactions.
Conversation IS computation
I’m willing to go along with Freeman on this one, at least on, say, three days out of five. And that’s kind of the position I want to take in the case of conversation. But, with that distinction in place, I want to say is that conversation is in fact a computational process. Which implies that, if we use a computer to simulate conversation, then we’re using one kind of computation, artificial digital computation, to simulate another kind of computation, natural digital/analog computation. For the purposes of a certain line of thought, a line of thought that leads to the analysis and description of literary form, conversation is the prototypical form of computation.
On this view apes do not engage in computation, not when they perceive and act in the world, not when they interact with one another through gestures that seem conversation-like. That’s something else. In the human case, conversation/computation is implemented in processes that are not themselves computational.
If that is the case, then what are the basic computational processes? I’m thinking that there’s the binding of sound to sense, and there’s the mechanisms of conversational repair. But, to the extent that apes exhibit turn taking in gestural interaction, turn-taking would not computational in kind. Rather, it belongs to the sensorimotor equipment in which conversational computation is implemented.
Can I live with this? I don’t know. I just made it up. Can I construct an account of literary form from this, or at least motivate such an account, that’s the question. We’ll see.
* * * * *
And it is the conversation-as-computation – or it is computation-as-conversation? – that is the root of the cultural evolutionary process that will yield arithmetic computation and, eventually, digital computers and the abstract theory of computation. This is most peculiar and tricky.
These mechanisms are at the borderline of consciousness.
To be continued.

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