Shaka, When the Walls Fell

November 22, 2015 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd


In Shaka When The Walls Fell (The Atlantic, June 18, 2014) Ian Bogost poses a challenge based on Darmok, a 1991 Star Trek New Generation episode. Star Trek's Universal Translator knows how to translate the aliens words, but it's completely useless at telling Picard what the Tamarians mean. If that's how Children of Tama communicate, how could they ever have become a starfaring civilization?

"... after hailing the alien ship upon arrival, contact with Children of Tama proves more difficult than Picard imagined:

DATHON, the Tamarian captain: Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Umbaya. Umbaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray.

(no response from Enterprise, looks at First Officer in frustration)

(slowly, deliberately) Rai and Jiri. At Lungha.

In the Star Trek universe, a “universal translator” automatically interprets between any alien language instantly and fluently. Unlike today’s machine translation methods, the universal translator requires no previous experience with another language in order to make sense of it. Such is the case with Tamarian, at least on the surface, as the Enterprise crew is able to comprehend the basic syntax and semantics of Tamarian utterances. “The Tamarian seems to be stating the proper names of individuals and locations,” offers Data, stating the obvious. But Picard quickly sums up the problem, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”

Picard calls the Tamarian's communication model metaphor, Troy calls it image, but according to Bogost's analysis they're both wrong:

"If we pretend that “Shaka, when the walls fell” is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery."

Read Bogost's essay for a fascinating dive into what Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric”—the use of computational processes to depict worldly processes.

I was struck by a simpler point: If the Tamarian's communicate using shared references, this implies:

1) A shared corpus of events known by every member of the Tamarian civilization;

2) A shared means of economically denoting a particular significant event in that corpus, with little likelihood of ambiguity or error;

3) A biological, technological, or technologically augmented biological means for every Tamarian to choose the appropriate event to communicate the desired interpretation (or logic in Bogost's analysis).

This seems like a tall order, but consider that most of us now live in a civilization that assumes that no factual question need go unanswered for more than a few minutes, after poking or talking at pocket sized supercomputer screens meshed with an associatively addressable, world spanning corpus that's glued together by annoying commercials, a few giant companies, and unicorn dreams of VCs.

What Tamarian's need (or have) is a culture spanning version of Doug Engelbart's Journal, a shared, addressable record of Tamarian history and its logic. I'll toss in Vannevar Bush's Memex too, for corpus spanning associative trails, if only we knew how to build the Memex's code book.

Doug on the screen in San Francisco. Dealing lightning.


In Shaka When The Walls Fell (The Atlantic, June 18, 2014) Ian Bogost. "In one fascinating episode, Star Trek: The Next Generation traced the limits of human communication as we know it—and suggested a new, truer way of talking about the universe."

And here's what Enterprise 2.0 looked like in 1968 | Dealing lightning with both hands... "Doug Engelbart sat under a twenty-two-foot-high video screen, "dealing lightning with both hands." At least that's the way it seemed to Chuck Thacker, a young Xerox PARC computer designer who was later shown a video of the demonstration that changed the course of the computer world." from John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said.

Thought Vectors - Vannevar Bush and Dark Matter Vannevar Bush's 1945 concept of trailblazing, across the dark matter of the Internet.

The Work Graph Model: TeamPage style Addressable work. ... A work graph consists of the units of work (tasks, ideas, clients, goals, agenda items); information about that work (relevant conversations, files, status, metadata); how it all fits together; and then the people involved with the work (who’s responsible for what? which people need to be kept in the loop?)