David Bowie in 1999: The internet is an alien life form

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All I have time for this afternoon:


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 15, 2019 @ 1:34 pm

    Interesting that in the closing seconds, DB speaks of "mediums" rather than "media" [1]. Well, interesting to me at least …
    [2] it's going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

  2. Stan Carey said,

    January 15, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

    I like this tweet from late 2016:

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    January 15, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

    Well, I completely fail to understand it, Stan. The last message has the earliest date, as far as I can see, and the other messages have dates in no obvious order, but what is it that they are discussing, and what is the humour ?

  4. Chandra said,

    January 15, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

    David Bowie died in early 2016, and Trump was elected in November. The implied joke is that Bowie's death triggered the beginning of the collapse of society.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    January 15, 2019 @ 5:25 pm

    Good Lord. I don't think that association would have occurred to me in a million years. But thank you for the explanation — I don't feel so bad about not understanding now I know what there was to understand !

  6. Stan Carey said,

    January 16, 2019 @ 1:40 pm

    Sorry, Philip – perhaps I should have supplied some context.

  7. Kyle said,

    January 16, 2019 @ 10:08 pm

    Four comments:

    1. The post needs to clarify which David Bowie is referred to: the musician or the Penn linguist.

    2. The twitter url in the post needs to be a hyperlink.

    3. I came to Language Log to read about today's big news regarding people's disdain for the Boston accent, but found none:


    4. My url bar in my Chrome browser says this website is not secure.

    5. All the recent posts on this blog are about Chinese linguistics. There needs to be a bigger diversity here of bloggers. Most people don't care about China, a quasi-third-world country with a ridiculously difficult-to-learn and illogical language. (Hint: develop an alphabet, ditch the ancient characters, and get rid of the tones.)

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 3:52 am

    Kyle — Two quick comments. (1) Is there any reason why discussions concerning language and linguistics should be secure ? No-one will enter their bank details, or their mother's maiden name, here, so why a wish for security ? (2) As a Briton, I am far more interested in Chinese linguistics than I am in American regional accents and (some) people's attitudes thereto.

  9. Rodger C said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 7:47 am

    Kyle, China has already developed an alphabet, and a bunch of people on this site share your view of that matter. But telling Chinese to get rid of its tones is like telling English to get rid of its consonant clusters.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    Responding to Kyle's 5th point.

    The readers of this blog aren't "most people", they are people with an interest in linguistics. Many of us to find the posts on Chinese interesting. Yes, I would like to see most non-Chinese posts. I do agree there. But not with any disdain for the posts about Chinese languages.

    There are good reasons "most people" should care about China. It's not just an ignorable 3rd world country. But some of us here are interested in these posts just because of our interest in language. Because this is, after all, Language Log.

    Oh, and regarding points one and two, the link did previously show as an embedded Twitter post. Don't know why it now shows as just a bare text URL. And the linked video makes clear which David Bowie.

  11. Mark P said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 10:49 am

    I for one do not necessarily welcome our Chinese overlords, but we might as well be prepared.

  12. Trogluddite said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 1:18 pm

    I'm not so sure that I feel the internet to be an alien life form, but the ways in which some people use it do sometimes make me wonder how many of my fellow human beings might be! Bowie's observation about the different relationship between producer and consumer in online media compared to "traditional" media was a good one, I thought; not just that more consumers are now also producers, but also the degree to which people now delegate the curation of what content should reach them (whether by choice or unknowingly.)

    To my mind, access to intelligent discussions about subjects which "most people don't care about" is one of the internet's most redeeming features (whether it be alive or not!) If you open the "blog roll" tab in the pane to the right, you will find plenty of suggestions for other blogs which may be more to your taste. I trust that you received a full refund of the exorbitant subscription fee. ;-)

  13. Chandra said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    @Kyle – Complaining about illogical and difficult-to-learn languages whilst speaking English is the height of irony

  14. Kyle said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    @Chandra: thank you. My mother was Chinese, but had no trouble learning English. I, on the other hand, being a native speaker of only English, struggled to learn Mandarin. Tones proved very difficult (both to articulate and to recognize aurally) and the character system was insane as there was no logic to it and it was complete rote memorization.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    January 18, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    I would suggest Kyle (based on what I've read here and on my own thoughts on language learning) that part of your difficulty is the instruction method. Trying to learn a new writing system, especially one such as Chinese, while also learning to speak an unfamiliar language is not a good method of language learning.

  16. Chandra said,

    January 18, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    @Kyle – That may be so in the anecdotal case of your mother, but as an English teacher I can assure you that by no means is English widely known as an easy or logical language to learn.

  17. ktschwarz said,

    January 18, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    @Rodger C: telling Chinese to get rid of its tones is like telling English to get rid of its consonant clusters — or, even more analogous, telling English to get rid of its excessive number of vowel distinctions. Alternately, English needs to develop a better alphabet with more vowels.

    @Trogluddite: access to intelligent discussions about subjects which "most people don't care about" is one of the internet's most redeeming features — Hear, hear!

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    January 19, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    Regarding Ellen K's suggestion that "[t]rying to learn a new writing system, especially one such as Chinese, while also learning to speak an unfamiliar language is not a good method of language learning", my three Chinese teachers from SISU would agree with that. All three taught us spoken (Mandarin) Chinese. the characters/hanzi themselves not even being discussed.

  19. David L. said,

    January 20, 2019 @ 2:53 am

    The clip is from 1999, which while quite a while ago, was well after the Internet was going full tilt. Some of the crazier commentators at the time thought that the Internet was going to do what zillions of current commentators tell us that "AI" is going to be doing quite soon (i.e. become sentient). Both are silly and dead wrong, of course, but the deja vu aspect is amusing.

    I don't do Chinese, but Chinese characters work really well for the Japanese. My (probably slightly excessive but still close) estimate is that the Japanese produce and consume more writing in Japanese than native English language speakers do in English. It's certainly close to true in fiction, and a slam dunk on a per person basis. My current technique for freaking out Japanese is to explain to them that the serialized novel has been dead since Dickens. This is inconceivable to a native Japanese speaker. Why, they can't fathom, would a whole language culture give up on one of the greatest pleasures in life.

    The point of the above, of course, is that the idea that Chinese characters are a bad idea is quite wrong, and that if you find yourself thinking that, you're misunderstanding a major piece of how human language works.

  20. Trogluddite said,

    January 20, 2019 @ 10:28 am

    @David L
    Such attitudes to "artificial brains" go at least as far back as Charles Babbage's attempts to construct his mechanical "analytical engine" in the mid-1800's (it is now generally accepted that the machine would have been a general purpose computer in the modern sense deriving from the work of Alan Turing et al.; albeit a rather slow one!)

    During his lobbying of Parliament for funding to research and construct the machine, Babbage was asked in all seriousness by MPs whether the machine would be able to determine the correct answer to a problem when the human operator had entered insufficient or incorrect instructions or data. Presumably, the fact that it could not contributed to their reluctance to cough up any funds, and Babbage's failure to construct the machine (the "alternative history" in which he did is a common trope of the "steam punk" genre of fiction.)

    I have often found that the people who struggle the most to learn programming concepts are those who expect the machine to intuit what they *meant* rather than merely executing what was actually instructed. I wonder to what degree this is influenced by the ubiquitous use of metaphors which anthropomorphise the technology.

  21. David L. said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 12:18 am

    For the record: you are talking to someone with an all-but-thesis from Roger Schank. As such, I have no problem with the idea that the human brain is a computer (it couldn't not be), but I do have problems with the idea that iterating a large number of dumb computations is going to magically produce intelligence. At some point, we'll figure out how to make computers reason similarly to the way people do. But we're nowhere close. And the current work in AI isn't getting us any closer, so it's going to be a long long time.

  22. Trogluddite said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 2:42 pm

    David L: "I have no problem with the idea that the human brain is a computer".
    Whether one has a problem with this idea may depend upon how one interprets the word "computer" (your meaning is clear, of course, and I have no problem with the idea either!)

    "Machine for iterating large numbers of dumb calculations" might be a good gloss for the narrowest sense of the word "computer"; accurately reflecting the capabilities of extant technology and the historical analogy with the human "computers" who once performed such odious mathematical tasks.

    More broadly, "computer" might be taken to mean any concrete example of current computing technology, such as one's lap-top or smart-phone. I would guess that this would be the most common referent in everyday communication.

    In your statement above, the meaning of "computer" is broader still; a much more ephemeral and abstract concept which may include technology which has yet to be conceived of or implemented, and/or which may have capabilities which current scientific understanding is insufficient to model.

    Speculating about the extent to which this ambiguity leads to misunderstandings is probably as unproductive as much of the speculation about AI; but there certainly seems to be some potential for it.

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