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the Complete Review
the complete review - mathematics / history

Language and the
Rise of the Algorithm

Jeffrey M. Binder

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To purchase Language and the Rise of the Algorithm

Title: Language and the Rise of the Algorithm
Author: Jeffrey M. Binder
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 225 pages
Availability: Language and the Rise of the Algorithm - US
Language and the Rise of the Algorithm - UK
Language and the Rise of the Algorithm - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: University of Chicago Press
  • With 22 halftone figures and illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting historical overview and analysis

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       With the advent, as computer processing capabilities have ballooned, of large-scale language-based machine learning -- Jeffrey M. Binder opens with the example of OpenAI's GPT-3 program, "trained on more than 570 gigabytes of compressed text" -- Binder turns in Language and the Rise of the Algorithm to what he sees as the too-overlooked role of language itself, beginning with in the historic conception(s) of algorithms.
       As he sums up in his Introduction:

The idea of algorithm is a levee holding back the social complexity of language, and it is about to break. This book is about the flood that inspired its construction.
       Language and the Rise of the Algorithm is, in no small part, a history of the algorithm -- which, as he shows, is not one, simple concept but rather has been an evolving idea and term. This extends even to recent times, as he notes:
In the early 1960s, computer scientists treated algorithm as a synonym for program [....] By the 1980s, algorithms and programs had diverged."
       Indeed, as he puts it: "by the 1980s it had come to refer to something more ethereal, to abstract procedures considered apart from their implementations and conceptual interpretations". Present-day large-scale machine learning (ML), where: "'algorithms' are no longer designed by engineers but instead tuned by machines on large amounts of data" also involves yet another huge shift in the meaning of the term -- with Binder observing that:
ML departs from the definition of algorithm put forth in the twentieth century, and the difference has wide-raning implications for the epistemology of computation.
       For much of this book, however, Binder goes much further back, tracing the historical record. He offers a good introduction to and overview of various efforts to create a 'universal language', specifically those efforts that used symbols to represent language (which then, theoretically, could also be used in equations of sorts). He considers several fascinating approaches, including those of Leibniz and John Wilkins -- and then also much more recent variations, such as the computer programming language ALGOL.
       Binder also traces the evolution of algebra -- noting that, before it was widely reduced to the letters and symbols we are familiar with, "algebra often took the form of words" -- and that even in symbolic expression it is difficult to separate language out, as algebraic equations are not as purely abstract as we might think. Symbolic efforts such as those of Condorcet and Boole and their relevance to the development of modern computing are also considered.
       It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking tour -- not least, of variations on the idea of a 'universal language' and its (theoretical) potential, as well as the history of the many variations of the concept of the 'algorithm'. Binder's point, of how it is impossible to divorce language from historic algorithm-concepts, is clearly made -- as is then his conclusion about the significance of the shift taking place at this very time, and some of the potential consequences, depending on how we move forward.
       Language and the Rise of the Algorithm is a quite fascinating study, taking in and building on a large amount of material (there are just shy of a thousand endnotes (991), the majority of which are references) and presenting it concisely and clearly. It is of interest both for the theoretical points addressed as well as as an historical account (complete with nice titbits such as some discussion of George Boole's poetry, complete with sample-sonnet; the illustrative figures and reproductions are also helpful).

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 November2022

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Language and the Rise of the Algorithm: Jeffrey M. Binder: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jeffrey M. Binder is an affiliate fellow at Pennsylvania State University's Center for Humanities and Information.

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© 2022 the complete review

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