Author Archives: Wenxi Zhang

What is language and a further thinking of human being and AI–Wency

What is language and a further thinking of human being and AI–Wency

Starts from asking what language is, professor Pinker seems to provide a clear explanation in his video where he mentions three components: words, rules and interface (Pinker, 2012). By using the example of “duck”, Pinker points out that words are the arbitrary of the sign. If we go back to Chandler’s work in week 2 where he mentioned the first mode of the relationship between signifier and signified (i.e. Symbol/Symbolic), we can tell that Pinker’s explanation matches well with this concept (Chandler, 2007, p.36). As for me, this seems to be the beginning start from which language creates a distinction between human beings and other species: by going beyond resemblance or direct connection, human beings are able to develop an arbitrary, indirect connection between their mind and the objects they perceive.

The second component mentioned by Pinker, is Rules including phonology, morphology and syntax. An interesting point going beyond the sound (i.e. phonology) and the generation of complex words (i.e. morphology), is human being’s ability of the infinite use of finite media (Pinker, 1994, p.87). In other words, in a discrete combinational system like language, there can be an unlimited number of completely distinct combinations based on finite numbers of words and rules (p.84). This human capacity, while Pinker in the video mentions Chomsky’s thinking of how children forms questions based on declarative sentences, is more likely to be achieved by an invisible superstructure which can be described by the phrase structure grammar which stands like a tree (in the earlier study people tends to use the word-chain machine to explain the infinite properties which turns out to be unable to deal with complex situations) (Pinker, 1994, p.101). This tree structure, is also used later when Pinker mentions how human beings are able to understand and interpret the words they hear. But how is this tree formed in a 4-year old child’s mind? This brings us to the discussions of developmental linguistics (Rdford, 2009, p.1). One major argument (though still many arguments left) is Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis which he believes the language faculty is innate, biologically endowed within the human brain (p.7). This can be also described as FOL (i.e. Faculty of language) which is the natural human cognitive capability that enables anyone to learn a natural language (Irvine, 2018, p.7). Pinker, in his video, also mentions an interesting hypothesis that children might have an endowed universal grammar which applies to all categories of the language in their mind. (Pinker, 2012). Though these hypotheses and viewpoints are not all confirmed today, they can still help us distinguish human capacities to acquire language with other species. Besides, the concept of universal grammar, if established, can be used to decide whether any language can be a language, that is, satisfying the structure features common to all languages (Irvine, 2018, p.7).

Now, look back on Professor Irvine’s introduction, we have experienced the first four layers (i.e.: phonology, morphology, lexicon and syntax) that enable language to work. A common mistake here is that many people overestimate the interdependence between syntax and semantic, nevertheless, after all, meaning has its own characteristic combinational structure, one that is not simply “read off” syntax (Jackendoff, 2003, p.427). Therefore, we are able to refer to the third component of language, according to Pinker, i.e. Language as interface which enable us to understand what people are saying and convey the information people understand as well during conversations. I find this part very exciting because it provides a further discussion for us to think of the reason why it is hard for computer to understand language and how this will lead to the future of AI. In the example The dog likes ice cream, we can probably describe the process as follows:

It seems that the first four layers here can be understood together as a database which human being’s mind as a parser can refer to, when the sentence comes, human beings are able to store the elements in their memory (mostly short-term) whilst refer to the database to define the category of each word, where in the surface tree the word should belong to and what else is needed to complete the structure. Here Pinker points out two interesting computational burdens: memory and decision making (Pinker, 1994, p.201). As for me, it might not be a bad idea to illustrate how human beings and computer experience differently under these two burdens.

  1. Human beings

  1. Computers


As for human beings, an innate biological limitation makes it hard for them to hold long-term memory (Pinker, 1994, p.205), besides, in the later example which illustrates the short onion sentence, human beings’ problem, is not only the amount of memory, but better, the ability to keep a particular kind of phrase in memory. From this aspect, computers seem to have a large advantage where inside its hardware architecture, each module is well controlled by the sophisticated control unit beyond which the assembly language seems to be far more convincing then unstable biology based human brains. The computer also has the hard disk to restore long-term data, whilst for human beings to reach their “hard disk” in their brains for long-term memory seems to be much more time-consuming and difficult then that of computers.

Fortunately, human beings seem to perform much better than computers when it comes to decision making. It is argued that computer seems to be too sophisticated to make a decision in an ambiguous condition (Pinker, 1994, p.109). Here I want to go back to the distinction between automatic and autonomous based on my insufficient understanding. It seems that while human beings are able to selectively assimilate the relevant element in their context and input them onto their parser, for computer it seems to be much harder to do so. From my perspective, the reason can be divided into two aspects: unconsciousness and consciousness. While many people are arguing that computer is merely playing an imitation game in the earliest Turing test where the machine takes the content provided by the previous person as an input, by using the established algorithm it was therefore able to make some subtle modifications based on the existing elements in the sentences and makes the actual imitation alike a real conversation, now scientist are investing more and more on deep learning and machine learning to make computer more and more conscious of the larger context based on which it can respond more and more human-like. Unconsciousness, on the other hand, seems to be a huge bottleneck in the development of AI. If we now look back on the very beginning of Pinker’s video, that might be the mysterious of language, and further, happens on the last three layers which are more abstract than the first four layers according to professor Irvine: semantic, pragmatic, discourse and text linguistics (Irvine, 2018, p.6).



  1. Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge.
  2. Irvine, M. (2018). Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts.
  1. Jackendoff, R. (2003). Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Pinker, S. (1994). How Language Works. The language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow & Company.
  3. Pinker, S. (October 6, 2012). Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. Retrieved from
  4. Radford, A. (2009). Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Exploring the human evolution and a further step on the contemporary technology–Wency Zhang

Exploring the human evolution and a further step on the contemporary technology

It might not be a bad idea to start with the 5 hypotheses for what set the stage for modern human behavior listed in Kate Wong’s article this week: Symbolism, Ecological disaster, projectile technology, population growth and brain mutation (Wong, 2005, p.89). Among these hypotheses, though not mutually exclusive, one that most likely to elicit advanced cultural behaviors, according to McBrearty, is increased population size where limited resources forced a competition where cleverer ways to obtain resources need to be created. Besides, growing population increase the possibilities where individuals then encountered among groups (Wong, 2005, p.94).

Nevertheless, if these two changes above are doom to happen because of the population growth, and given that the population of some other primate relatives is comparable to our ancestor, does this indicate that they are also going to have the modern behavior as we do? Unfortunately, human beings seem to be the only species that is having this so called modern behavior. If we call the distinctions social factors, which J. C. Barrett mentioned in the example that earlier humans’ idea of burial, compared to what chimpanzees react to the death of their friends, is different in the idea of caching the death which indicates the social factors in their group (Barrett, 2013, p.12).

But the question seems still unsolved. What, after all, make these social factors happen? I would start with every individual in those groups, which drives me to think about the difference between human beings and other primate relatives or animals. While Dubreuil points out such distinction can be explained by human’s cognitive commitment that brings together interest of wider good, this argument is later challenged by the social brain hypothesis which, in an anatomical way, argues that the increase of social complexity would drive the brain development (Barrett, 2013, p.9-10). While there is no absolute judgement, we can still see the mutual interaction between brain and social factors. Simultaneously, this could lead us to think about human brain, mind and consciousness. The other concept Barrett mentions is human consciousness rest upon recognition of the other (Barrett, 2013, p.11). For me this concept is more philosophical where Hegel mentioned a lot in his master and slave dialectic about how one manages to fight for the recognition to become a human being and thus gain self-consciousness (Kojeve, 1969, p.63). But if we consider in a more anatomical, or biological way, the Darwinian narrative which tends to attribute those intelligence behaviors of human beings in a genetic way where natural selection enables those who are more adaptive to pass their gene to the next generation (Barrett, 2013, p.8). Barrett partly agrees with this viewpoint whilst he is suspect of the reduction where every behavior of the organism is solely and fully determined by its genetic inheritance (p.8). Rather, he brings the importance of individual’s disclosure of the sense of the world. Culture as both an input into our information processing channel and an output seems to be important here.

In Donald’s article, he points out that the cognitive development of human beings depends upon their links with culture, cultural network harness the cognitive resources of many individuals (Donald, 2007, p.219-220). Renfrew organizes Donald’s theory into three transitions within four phases (i.e. Episode culture, Mimetic culture, Linguistic or mythic culture, theoretic culture) and slightly challenges his viewpoint by adding material world as an important factor through the evolution where he adds External Symbolic Storage between linguistic culture and theoretic culture (to be sure, he clears that the phases are not simply sequential) (Renfrew, 1999, p.2-4). Here we can see how a great match comes here if we look back on Wong’s list of 5 hypothesis: the first hypothesis, i.e. the Symbolism, indicates that the invention of external storage of information (including jewelry, art, language and tools), was the watershed event in modern behavioral evolution (Wong, 2005, p.94).

The other interesting point about the evolution is the linguistic culture where word, language has been considered a crucial point to distinct human beings with other species. Tools (including language), according to Cole, are in turn reacting on the development on human psychological processes (Cole, 1996, p.108). The conceptual tools serve as a mediation which allows human beings, unlike animals, to imagine objects they might not directly perceiving, which, therefore, indicates that human beings are able to live in a two-dimensional world while there is only one-dimension for other animals (Cole, 1996, p.120). Besides, words also break the barrier exists in the oral culture where memory are hard to fully stored due to biological limitation. While culture mediation implies a mode of development change in which the activities of prior generations are cumulated in the present as the specifically human part of the environment, a complete storage counts a lot for culture mediation (Cole, 1996, p.145). This reminds me of the most efficient storage tool today: the computer. Or to be sure, the best collaboration: a computer (as a server) and the internet, which in other word, is the cloud storage today. With the help of computer and internet, one can retrieve the data, or the information dating back to 10,000 years ago just in a second. Further, it’s much faster as well as being able to save a lot of human resources than the words on non-electrical devices. In a case that leads to the treaty of the Right to be Forgotten in EU, there was a Spanish lawyer who request his embarrassing record to be deleted so that people won’t find this information quickly on search engine, the court finally require the search engine to delete the relevant data, however, the newspaper 10 years ago which also contain the embarrassing record were not asked to make any action eventually (Posner, n.d.). The reason seems obvious: No one would border to jump into the heaps of old papers to find the information 10 years ago. Therefore, it might not be a bad idea to see the combination of computer and internet as a great fuel of culture mediation today.

There is still, obviously some discussion about the exploration of brain and mind which Barrett mentions with bringing two propositions. Another spotlight here is the discussion about the modularity of the brain which resembles our concept today of computers. One thing that is thought-provoking is that the modularity indicates a brain-plus facility where there the modules of the brain are domain-specific (Barrett, 2013, p.3). These might also lead us to further think of AI nowadays. While most computers are still automatic, an autonomous AI’s development, might need to refer to this concept as well.

  1. Barret, J. C. (2013). The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think. Cambridge Archaeological. 23(01).
  2. Cole, M. (1996). On Cognitive Artifacts. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Amsterdam: Rodophi.
  4. Kojeve, A. (1969). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology.
  5. Renfrew, C. (1999). Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage. Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge. UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  6. Posner, E. (n.d.). We all have the Right to be Forgotten. Retrieved from
  7. Wong, K. (2005, June). The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture. United States: Scientific American.


Medium as an “in-between” from micro to macro aspects

Medium as an “in-between” from micro to macro aspects

I would start the discussion this week from the earliest meaning of the term “medium”. By thinking about medium as something “in-the-middle” or “in-between”, we can therefore depict an image containing two dimensions in our mind: space and time (Irvine, 2018, p.1).

I would like to start with the spatial axis. To be sure, as for me, the concept of space is more generalized. It is on the one hand object-oriented including the wires as a “media” of physical signals and waves, the assembly language as a “media” between the electronic locations and the lowest level of computer systems, or if we want to step closer to human beings, the newspapers lying “in-between” the readers and the textual, visual information, the TV screens standing in the middle of audiences and dramas and TV shows, or the cyberspace that cross the geographic broader, connecting people in every corner of the world with multiple forms of information, etc. On the other hand, it could be also imaginary, it contains a well-structured top-down layer with technical infrastructure at the bottom and social-political-cultural environment at the top while there are mutual relationships between each layer (Hall, 1999, p.510). I will consider the application of the concept of medium, media and mediation in three layers from bottom to the top: Technical infrastructure, Audiences’ meaning system and Social-cultural-economic-political context.

The earliest concept of medium, or media in technical infrastructure is relatively purely physical (e.g. the copper wire used as a medium for conducting electrical current) (Irvine, 2018, p.1). This knowledge fits well into the first metaphor of medium (i.e. medium-as-vessel/conduit) according to Meyrowitz where the content delivered is analytically separated from the particular presentation of it in a particular medium (Meyrowitz, 1997, p.44-45). However, today there is no way we can separate the operation of electrical, telecommunication system with computer science. Therefore, during the mediation from the physical and hardware onto the computer system, assembly language, initially using the binary system to represent physical location with electrical energy, becomes a medium, or interface (Personally I think interface is a more imaginary or less material explanation of medium). The concept that everything computational and digital is an artefact of and for human symbolic cognition stands out here, while for example, programmers can choose basing on their preference about whether use 0 or 1 to represent an off status, there is already human meaning system interacts here (Irvine, 2018, p.8). Besides, digital media nowadays becomes one of the most popular way for us to access information as the receiver and deliver information as the transmitter, the OSI layer model in TCP-IP showing a bottom-up structure from physical layer (where those physical signals flows) to application layer (where human beings get their final touch of this system) greatly explains how technical infrastructure, with components inside which as micro media object and itself as a macro media object, is serving as a critical proxy in the whole media system and is used importantly in many fields including information and communication, new media and software studies. (Irvine, 2018, p.4)

If we then have a glance at Hall’s figure describing the process of encoding and decoding (Hall, 1999, p.510). It might not be a bad idea to consider the second layer, i.e., the meaning system, as the medium of the user interface (it can be print books, newspapers, TV, radios or the screen of your iPhone) and each person as an entirety. While there are lots of studies here applied to the semiotics field, one concept I want to bring here is that media do not neutrally communicate or transmit some equally neutral information content (Irvine, 2018, p.15). If we consider meaning system of human beings as the medium here and think about the semiotic system theory, it might not be hard to explain. According to Peirce’s successive interpretants in his model of the sign, an interpretant can always point to another representamen with a relatively degree of randomness (Chandler, 2007, p.32). Stuart Hall mentioned a related concept called connotation where in Barthes’ s example of sweater, multiple connotative levels emerge including ‘a cold day’, ‘informal fashion styles’ or even ‘long autumn walk in the woods’. The same information sent from the transmitter, therefore, can experience lots of possibilities and changes at different receivers (i.e.: our meaning system). Therefore, the codes of encoding and decoding is usually, or always, asymmetrical (Hall, 1999, p.510).

The top layer, i.e., the political-social-economic-cultural context, from my perspective, affects we as the audience in two steps. First, it regulates directly towards the information we receive. Today in a digital world, usually the first step has a lot to do with the technical infrastructure where for example governments’ censorship, control on the domain name system, working with search engines such as Google to take the advantage of algorithms invisible to ordinary users to create fake news or affect the elections (there are good purposes though); Second, it makes the audience (probably unconsciously), to reproduce the dominant, or preferred meaning which will in turn affect our later perception and judgement of the following information by imputing the preferred information to us. This serves as an explanation of why audiences from different cultural backgrounds perceives the same information differently. According to McLuhan, one way where social and political power is wielded is through control over communication media (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.51) and media are thus forms of social-political-cultural mediation, and presuppose institutions dedicated to cultural transmission over time (Irvine, 2018, p.15).

Finally, if we look horizontally through the time line, medium is also an “in-between” through the temporal axis of history, affecting and witnessing the social changes. According to Meyrowitz, there are three phases of civilization that could be well matched to three major forms of communicating: Traditional oral societies, Modern print societies and electronic global culture. The society is first integrated (i.e. in the nomadic society) in face to face communication, followingly segregated and fragmented with the emergence of print media and libraries and re-integrated within digitalization where intimacy is brought back and simultaneously a geographic barrier in the first state is broken (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.53-58). The social roles assigned to male-female, adults-child, leaders-followers are also travelling from unitary to binary and gradually back to unitary (Meyrowitz, 1994, p.63-69). If we think about this in a Postmodernism way, there is endlessly revolution and revolve and we, as audiences, are luckily also in-the-middle in the communication and media history.



  1. Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge.
  2. Hall, S. (1999). Encoding, Decoding. New York: Routledge.
  3. Irvine, M. (2018). Media Theory: An Introduction.
  4. Meyrowitz, J. (1997). Understandings of Media.
  5. Meyrowitz, J. (1994). Media Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.