How many specks of dust are there in the universe? Very very many.
Is each speck of dust unique? Perhaps, maybe, I don’t know.
Vast is a quite short word, yet it spans such breadth, so many cases, across the universe. This little four-letter word almost extends beyond the outer reaches of human intellect itself. Let’s not forget, though, that it’s just another word devised by mere humans.
A little less than a century ago, a hardly known dude in the USA named Zipf developed a very interesting analysis of written language. Today it might seem quite simple, but we should also remember that many of the most insightful scientific breakthroughs could be sketched out on the back of an envelope — envelopes, remember those things?
Back to Zipf’s bright idea. It goes like this: People use short words a lot, and people rarely use long words — isn’t that amazing?
Well, it isn’t — but then again it also is.
Let’s imagine two people who both think the other one is their everything, their reason to exist, their quintessential meaning in life. They might refer to each other as “the only one” — in other words: unique. What kinds of names would they tend to use for each other? Would they choose equally unique terms? Would their choices always be the same, or would they vary?
If you want to single out one single speck of dust from each other single speck of dust in the rest of the universe, you have a very big problem to solve. Luckily, our horizons are not quite that vast.
Quite the opposite rings much more true (or valid or whatever): our languages (and also other, related technologies, such as logic, philosophy, mathematics, data science, etc.) are very limited, localized in both space and time. Sometimes they are so limited that even people from neighboring villages find each other’s “foreign” language (or rather: different dialects of the same language) as incomprehensible.
We ought to not expect too much from information and communications technology — we are a far cry from any universal or even merely global solutions. I do not even believe that a global solution might even be preferable to networks of larger numbers of localized solutions (David Weinberger, for example, sometimes refers to “small pieces, loosely joined” [ https://www.smallpieces.com ] — see also my own “Everywhere Plans for Everybody” [ https://wants.blog/2022/01/07/everywhere-plans-for-everybody ] ). Indeed: Perhaps E.F. Schumacher was right all along, and perhaps the majority were wrong to discredit his “Small is Beautiful”.