Blog Post

Should Computer “Languages” Qualify as Foreign Languages for Ph.D.s?

No, they shouldn't. At least according to Douglas Hofstadter, who holds Ph.D.s in Comp. Lit. as well as Physics and has published extensively on artificial intelligence. His reasoning? Does making swooshing sounds while holding a toy plane qualify you to be a pilot? (That's exactly how he put it to me in an impassioned message.)

I also object. But not for the reasons Hofstadter gives—that basically human languages are far richer and more complex than computer ones. 

 UC Davis and UC Irvine now allow students to substitute one “computer language” for a foreign language. Of course I have no objection to studying codes and I believe in a form of AI (connectionism), so I'm not a Luddite. And I'm an object-oriented ontologist. I don't believe humans have a monopoly on meaning. I think humanists should study all kinds of things (“carpentry” as Ian Bogost puts it). In fact, learning how to code might be just the ticket. 

No actually my reasoning is quite different. It's that the codes under discussion (mid- to high-level) are very specialized, rigidly formulated versions of ENGLISH.

The reason is obvious: humans program computers and they need to be able to understand the code they use.

If we allow computer languages, we should allow recipes. Computer codes are specialized algorithms. So are recipes.

Now let's go a bit deeper. The term “computer language” is weaselly. Do I speak to you using hormones and neurotransmitters? My body does. But I, Tim Morton, use words. When I speak to my computer, telling it for example to shut down, I use English: I hit “Shut Down” on the menu. How the computer executes that command is withdrawn from me, to use the language of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations. As good posthumanists we should realize that we are in the happy position of already talking to computers all the time—in English. My argument isn't an argument about whether computers can talk.

I'm not discriminating against nonhumans, just as using words to talk to your friend isn't discriminating against hormones. But hormones are a “human language” as much as software code is a “computer language.” I fancy that the term “computer language” is used to make “computer” sound like “French person.” But “computers” are no more “people” than a bunch of hormones are French. 

Again, what we're really talking about is software code. I believe that if we announced that we were allowing students to “translate software code” there would be an appropriate (negative) reaction.

When we examine software code, we find phrases like “listproc.” These are highly abbreviated, encapsulated forms of English, like “i.e” is an abbreviated form of Latin. If you want foreignness you should go to the machine code level.

So what are we doing when we ask a Ph.D candidate to “translate” some software code? I hold that we're asking her to do something very different than what we want when we ask her to translate some Derrida from the French. 

We are asking her to parse a very rigorous set of algorithmic instructions into a less rigorous form of the same language. (That's the funny thing: the real difference between human languages and software codes is that the former are sloppier and less rigorous.)

Allowing students to substitute a software code is unfair—mostly for the students who haven't chosen this option. They have to translate a different language into English. 


Timothy Morton's picture
Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).