Editing the program

by Terence MacNamee

One of the great taboos has been about altering what is written. Always, when something was talked about, it was just talk, but seriousness and commitment were indicated by “putting it in writing”, the idea being that it could not easily be changed afterwards.

The immutability of text has been a commonplace since the Bible. Pontius Pilate declares “what I have written, I have written”. The author of the Apocalypse curses the copyist who might presume to change his message: “if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book”.

In later times, the permanence of the written was reinforced by the technology of printing. The book was printed and reprinted mechanically, not copied by human hand, and every copy was certain to be the same.

The more modern technology of the computer has, however, irreparably undermined the permanence of the written. Now we can alter the text as we please, as long as we have an editable version.

Indeed, not only can we edit discourse, we can edit language itself. Language is something given, passed down from generation to generation, and the paradox of it is that it is always changing, but no-one has the power to change it. Men have long been discontented with this givenness of language. Particularly in the 17th century, people like Bishop Wilkins laboured at creating artificial languages for science and philosophy. Yet they were never used. Later artificial languages like Esperanto did not meet with much acceptance either, though people always saluted the effort.

Today the editing of the language code seems much more possible. It can be found in artificial standard languages created by linguists. In many parts of the world, the requirements of mass media encourage the development of such standard forms to unite dialects that were previously isolated from each other. These new standard forms often meet with resistance from speakers, but the fact that they can be, and are being devised is a sign that it is becoming conceivable to change our language at will.

We are encouraged to go upstream and change the language code itself by the metaphor of the program in the computer, of course. It is in the nature of programs to be explicit, and so they can be rewritten. If we don’t like the output – what the program does with the input – we can always go back and change the program.

This has an even more momentous effect on molecular biology and genetics, which rely on the idea of a code or a program for life forms. We can now go back and edit DNA, introducing genetic variants, even creating new species. Yet we cannot help feeling uneasy about altering life forms, uneasy about meddling with a level of things that may not be allowed us. The Author of the Book of Life, we suspect, will not take kindly to our ill-judged editing, and we may draw an Apocalyptic curse down on our heads.