Humans have long idolized the potential of a universal language. In the book of Genesis, passage 11:1-9 recounts the story of Babel, in which all of humankind spoke the same language. Humans found this empowering, so much so that they thought they could rival God with their unified language. In Genesis 11:4, humans say, “come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves...” Making that name was, in God’s view, the pinnacle of arrogance--and a threat to his omniscient power. Before humankind could finish the tower, God made each speak another language and scattered his people among the Earth.
The story of Babel can be read as a tale of the repercussions of arrogance, or one of jealousy, or a warning to those who see themselves in God’s image. In most interpretations, the story frames losing universal language as losing a privilege. Since then, humans have attempted to remedy this situation.
Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter attempted to formulate a universal language through their filmmaking. “In theory and practice, each artist had been independently experimenting with abstract form in an effort to create a new method of visual communication,” writes Maya Stendhal Gallery in a press release for their 2007 exhibition, “Universal Language & the Avant-Garde: Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, and Jonas Mekas.” Between 1919-1921, Eggeling and Richter worked closely together and produced works like Eggeling’s Vertical Mass (1919) and Richter’s Preludium (1919.)
Richter framed their collaboration as creating a language which generated a transcendent experience that divorced art from the influences of mass culture, nationalism and social constructs. “The basis for such language would lie in the identical form perception in all human beings and would offer the promise of a universal art as it had never existed before. With careful analysis of the elements, one should be able to rebuild men’s vision into a spiritual language in which the simplest as well as the most complicated, emotions as well as thoughts, objects as well as ideas, would find a form.”
Media theorist Boris Groys expands on this process, writing, “avant-garde art has [sic] experimented with the liberation of sound fragments and individual letters from their subjugation to grammatically established word forms.” Eggeling and Richter forwent the construction of language in favor of visual empathy that would connect viewers and unify their experience. But Eggeling and Richter may have overestimated the cultural understanding that unites visual language. In Richter’s film Rhythmus 21 (1921,) the shapes that fill the screen, mostly squares and rectangles, colorblocked voids of light and dark, may not read the same across cultures. In Islam, for instance, the square can represent the heart; in China, the square often signifies rules, rigidity and the element of Earth. Similarly, the melancholy tone of the upright bass Richter paired with the film evokes too much feeling to stand in for a universal sonic experience. Nostalgia easily co-ops aural sensations, and viewers are more likely to pair a personal memory with Richter’s malleable work.
Though aspirational, Eggeling and Richter were running towards the impossible because their style of avant-garde film is caught in a double-bind. Groys explains, “the struggle for the liberation of words is also a struggle for their equality,” but defining equality within language has no measurable method. Their universal language would have to privilege one semiotic relationship over another, and those determinations would be informed by mass culture, nationalism and social constructs, the very influences the filmmakers strived to abandon.
When information technology collapsed the world into McLuhan’s Global Village, the need for diversity became obsolete. Everyone is each other’s neighbor. To borrow sugar, we should be able to ask one another in the same tongue. At one point, being connected online meant that virtual neighbors couldn’t pick up on the physical performance that accompanies verbal communication; the wrinkle of the brow, the puff of the cheeks in frustration, a charades gesture to the tongue to conjure sugar’s sweetness.
With video and the ambitions of mixed reality technologies, these haptic communications are being folded back into web interaction. But the gestures and expressions are not reflecting pre-digital culture; they are being molded around a homogenized global infrastructural network. In A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram explains, “when one sees behavior that is not obviously simple--in essentially any system--it can be thought of as corresponding to a computation of equivalent sophistication.” N. Katherine Hayles expands on Wolfram’s claim: “computation does not merely simulate the behavior of complex systems; computation is envisioned as the process that actually generates behavior in everything from biological organisms to human social systems.” The burgeoning universal language is not a string of phonemes and morphemes, but the information technology infrastructure that shapes the way people communicate.
With our computationally-designed interactions, shaped by tech oligarchies like Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet, our Global Village inches towards dystopian fiction. The masses uniformly drinking Soylent, taking to their Casper mattresses in purple jumpsuits and white Nikes, all extending their right arms, wrists heavy with FitBits, at once is a type of programmed hell featured in propaganda films, cults, and Silicon Valley.
The universal language of information technology is being perfected in Geneva, Switzerland. A trio of organizations collaborate to create most of the world’s international standards, a set of guidelines that dictate things like manufacturing processes, quality assurance, safety procedures, staffing, and distribution for common objects and industries. International standards get into granular details, not just giving instructions for how to produce an object, but even the rules for communicating specs, such as measurement or weight. This ensures that screws across the globe are manufactured with the same length, rivets, and grooves for drill bits that are also designed in accordance to international standards.
Regarding information technology, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU,) an agency managed by the United Nations, defines the parameters for IT products and protocol, and two other organizations mold their international standards atop these requirements. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) ensures that microchips and batteries can communicate with ITU-standardized satellites, and then the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) sets guidelines for IT technicians and technologies so that they can manage and repair these systems using the same language across borders. Each organization has set standards in the tens of thousands, and diligently updates, revises, and sets goals for improving their standards.
The triangulated effort between the ITU, IEC and ISO invariably mimics the avant-garde attempt to create a language that operates independently of cultural phenomenons. They promote their work as a step towards global unity, and their geographic clustering in Switzerland riffs off the country’s long standing association with neutrality, giving the impression that these standards are for the greater good. Their websites are populated with stock photos that show people of all races working together, usually in business attire. Together, we can all be capitalists.
Who are the people working at these organizations? Each of the main players boast relationships with hundreds of countries; the ITU with 193, the ISO with 162, and the IEC with 86. Every country has a committee, subcommittees, and working groups made up of scientists, engineers, economists, lawyers, and other experienced professionals known as experts in their field. The expansive set of participants should lend itself to complex consideration regarding the inequality of resources, infrastructural development, and economic stability. International standards are not targeting luxury goods searching for an industry that doesn’t yet exist, but are attentive to the least sophisticated technologies. What works in America also needs to work in Bangladesh. Most of the poorest countries in the world, however, are not member organizations, and therefore have no say in how these technologies can be designed in ways that balance between cutting-edge and compatible with their often outdated infrastructure. The technology gap between poor and wealthier countries continues to widen. The new, universal language isn’t equalized.
While we consider the future of information technology fusing to our established linguistic system, we begin to speculate how, exactly, people will express this language. This is a nebulous territory, and currently looks to be driven mostly by the “Big Five” corporations—Alphabet (Google’s parent company,) Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft— that have dominated the production and ownership of information technology products for the past four decades.
Gradually, internet innovations have moved from hardware to software. In the lavish dot-com era of the 1990s, start-ups designed their products to run efficiently with IBM and Intel processors running inside Dell and Gateway computer towers. To reach consumers, they had to create a program that would run on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser, the literal window into the internet. Since then, the most lucrative start-ups, like Facebook, Amazon, and Uber, have hitched onto the established, now standardized, infrastructure, signaling that they have accepted this as the norm, or the dominant vernacular.
But occasionally, we see new technology emerge that doesn’t comply with international standards or operate on the ruling platforms. These rogue agents are not concerned with plugging into modern commerce. They may be dreamed up by imaginative individuals who are resistant to the universal language, or they may be adaptations devised by those unable to speak it. They could be an Elon Musk fever dream, or an unhoused person’s mechanism for survival. The engineers, artists, impoverished, and disconnected who are designing outside of international standards are formulating their own personal infrastructural patois, a way of living within the majority while speaking a minor language.
In Spectacular Grammar: Infrastructure as a Universal Language, the complex layering that culminates into minor languages are deconstructed, and various translations are given to the public. The exhibition begins with Eggeling and Richter’s attempted universelle sprache, then jumps to my primer on international standardization. From there, Color Coded explains how technology—and thus, infrastructural universal language—is not a neutral force, but inherently political, often benefitting white supremacy and weaponized against minorities. Feminist.AI gives an example of this imbalance within the realm of voice design; their voice box prototypes amplify stories of discrimination experienced by women of color. Mindy Seu presents a peer-to-peer website, just one potential way of subverting the dominant language.
While each artist and technologist takes the lead on presenting their ideas, most of Spectacular Grammar’s displays are collectively generated. This is to emphasize the collaborative, imperfect, and unpredictable way that we imagine the emergence and trajectory of universal language. In a series of workshops that took place over the course of a day on April 6, 2019, roughly 25 people offered their perspectives. They speculated on how “common” technology can interlock when not standardized; what technologies come specifically from their culture, which are valued, and which are indirectly harmful; how their voice would sound if they were the ones representing virtual assistants; and how to tap into grassroots organizing and publishing to collectively rewrite the canon on information technology’s history.
The additions don’t form a consensus. They merely put forth more questions and ideas, giving audiences many avenues into which they can approach the broader proposition of infrastructure’s role in formulating universal language. Spectacular Grammar is not about presenting a paradigm, but a way of nudging us into thinking more critically about how information technology is the message. If we can speak the language, we can advocate for ourselves and shape our future.