When engineers and architects build a technical system or a building, they first make a design. Nowadays, this is in most cases done with the help of a computer, but the traditional method is to prepare a technical drawing or a set of such drawings. No matter if it is done with a computer or on the traditional drawing board, we get a set of documents (on paper or in electronic form) describing the object to be built. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to call this whole set of description here “the blueprint”.
In my recent article Towards the Philosophy of Decay, I have been describing the relationship of the “blueprint theory“ of a system and the “real” system. The real system has more properties and processes happening inside it than the blueprint is describing. In the process of decay, these “residual” properties and processes dominate until the system moves out of the part of its “state space” described by the blue print. The system goes its own way and the system described by the blueprint that was emulated by it is destroyed.
I am now going to look at the inverse process, the process of building the system. In the article on decay, I had been using the example of a power station, suggested by the picture I had selected to illustrate the article. In this article, I will take the same example again since as complex technical systems, power stations provide a lot of different starting points for philosophical investigations.
The blueprint is formulated in a system of formal notations that we can call a language (or a set of languages) that extend our normal “natural” language. There are conventions of how to draw parts, from different perspectives. There are official norms about the elements of this artificial language. There are ways to indicate sizes, materials, tolerances, i.e. how much a measurement is allowed to diverge from an ideal, etc. While in the article on decay, I concentrated on the ontological aspects of language, in this article I will concentrate more on their semantics, on the procedural aspects of semantics and on the creativity requred in interpretation.
If you know how to read a blueprint, you know about the properties of the part described. In this way, it can be used as a kind of “map” of the part. For example, after the power station has been built, an architectural drawing of it can provide information on how to navigate through it to find a certain place or part (e.g. to make a repair). An important aspect of this is that navigation is a process. Starting from the entrance, the technician is walking through the building to reach a certain place. He is translating the blueprint into a sequence of actions.
When building the system, the information in the blueprint is used to make and assemble parts. Here the active aspect of the semantics of the blueprint is even more pronounced. In the project of building the system, the blueprint is translated into a web of actions. Building materials have to be ordered from providers and have to be transported to the construction place or to workshops or factories where parts are made from them. Parts have to be packed, shipped to the construction place, unloaded, unpacked and assembled. Secondary documents controlling these actions are produced in the process. Bit by bit the building and the machines inside it are taking shape.
This procedural aspect, it seems to me, is central to the way language works. The language-item, an utterance, a blue print, or whatever, is processed by a listener or reader, it is parsed into its constituents and then it is translated into actions. Some of these actions consist of the production of other language items (language here understood again as a very general term of something carrying information) like a letter to order a truckload of concrete or a document containing a calculation. Some of the actions are real-world-actions like casting a part of a turbine, assembling a machine or driving a truck with supplies to the construction place. The blue print is translated into actions. It might be difficult to define what its “meaning” is but we can understand how it is used to guide the processes of construction, until the power station is switched on for the first time. It seems to me that trying to define the meaning of “meaning” does not carry us very far. Language items are produced in processes and they are interpreted in processes, so by investigating these processes, we can understand how they work. I therefore think that we can get a grip on semantics by trying to look at these processes instead of looking at language as something static in a world of logical truth conditions.
An interesting aspect of these processes is that additional information is added in them. We have some know-how of how to make certain parts, so knowledge is added. For example, there is knowledge about concrete building technology, steel or bronze casting, on how to make certain alloys and about heat treatments of materials. The workers building the buildings have know-how of how to put the steel rods before pooring in the concrete.
The driver who brings a part from the factory to the construction place has knowledge of the geography of the place and knowledge of how to drive a truck. The clerk who is ordering the concrete or steel knows something about the providers and about how to formulate a business letter etc. So just like the blue-print does not describe the power-station completely, as we can see when it is decaying, it also does not describe the process of building completely. It is interpreted by a complex system consisting of companies, workers, engineers, machines etc. It can be viewed as a program, a piece of software, running on that system like a program running on a computer, but it does not contain the complete information. The system that builds the power station adds information.
To an extent, these processes are creative, i.e. some of the added information is created on the spot or found out about only when it is needed. In a mass production process in a factory, engineers are trying to make more of this information explicit, until creativity is no longer required and the complete process is automated. They will also attempt to formalize the translation process so that, for example, a blueprint of a part (a drawing describing the geometrical shape of a part) can be translated automatically into the sequence of actions of the machine tool producing it. Another example is the use of a satnav that is a formalization of the geographical knowledge of a truck driver. At the end of this development we would have a robotic car that does the driving automatically.
However, this formalization does not exist initially. It is only the end point of a long process of development and, since technology is innovative, it will never be complete. This means that even in the interpretation of “exact” descriptions in technology and science, there is an element of creativity involved. The semantics is not completely fixed in terms of formal theories. This element of creativity allows for adaptability and flexibility in environments that have – unlike the controlled environment of a factory – a large number of unknown properties.
In a way, we can even view the whole process of technological development through history, as a creative process leading to the civilization we have now. Starting from the first sticks and stones picked up by our distant ancestors and used as simple tools and the first bits of language invented to coordinate their actions, tools and language items coevolved. Tools where used to make other tools, ideas where used to create other ideas, and eventually, I am writing this article here using a computer and you are using your computer or some other device to read it.
(The pictures are from
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-G0724-0013-001,_Baustelle_Kraftwerk_Thierbach,_sowjetischer_Techniker.jpg, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-F0519-0011-001,_Baustelle_Kraftwerk_Thierbach,_polnische_Monteure.jpg and http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-E1124-0013-001,_Baustelle_Kraftwerk_Thierbach,_polnische_Monteure.jpg.
These picture, from the German “Bundesarchiv” (German National Archive) show the process of building a power station in the GDR (DDR), the former east German state belonging to the Sowjet block. I choose these pictures just because they are open domain and they fit the topic. There is no ideological intention connected with this.)