Software engineers are taught to reject things that are not well defined. My likes are trained to shun concepts that cannot be expressed in diagrams – pictures not more elaborate than road signs. Our ideas can be summarized on billboards, in short phrases supported by acronym, animated with a few rectangles connected by stubby ‘Fedex’ arrows, sufficient to convey the ‘universe of the problem’ at a glance. I come from a world of ‘soundness’ and ‘completeness’ with ‘truth tables’ and ‘derivation rules’ with precise mathematical reasoning for everything that is worth mentioning. I do not have a writer’s voice; I have ‘communication skills’ – clear, succinct and convincing. There is no room for second thoughts, the evidence has to drive to a single conclusion; it must be simple and focused. What would I do with an inner voice that would bring me to life? A voice that might speak in ambiguous terms; a voice that would not use terms at all; a voice that would express itself in dialog instead of hyphenated bullets; a voice that would make the listeners’ minds wander. This is a voice that lets the audience decide for themselves. A voice that laughs, and cries, that could be angry or sad or harsh or cruel or comforting, supportive or reprimanding. A voice that could keep quiet and just listen to other voices like it without an ‘agenda’…
Speaking with an inner voice would require that I use more vowels. Most people take vowels for granted, never stopping to thank these few letters for the wonders they enable in the English language. In my world it has been decided that what is not pronounced is redundant. Consequentially vowels were hunted down with a vengeance. The hunt left us with a language of acronyms like ‘JSP’, ‘XML’ and ‘CSS’. Did we not know t hat a culture, which abolishes its vowels, loses its ability to create meaningful names? How can we speak of anything living without names? Is a name too much to ask for? As parents we all shuddered when a child was called ‘IT’, yet, as engineers even ‘IT’ is too much to ask for. Instead, we recycle the vowels and use them to name the main figures of our discourse. We managed to reduce ‘IT’ to ‘i’; a little ‘i’, not a capital I. We traded an ‘I’ for an ‘i’… If only it were a fair trade. Capital ‘I’ has flesh and character. Little ‘i’ is a ‘variable’ that, in spite of its atomicity, is many different characters on the same page – all of them doing the same thing. Little ‘i’ counts how many times our stories go through ‘loops’. If little ‘i’ needs help we summon little ‘e’ to keep track of ‘errors’ while little ‘o’ references ‘objects’, o bjects that are ‘modular’ software machines. We take great pride in the ‘reusability’ of our software machines – which in-and-of themselves cannot create anything. We have promoted these machines to double-capital-o’ed OO (object oriented). We hail the predictability of double-O’edness as emotionless plots go predictably through the loops that little ‘i’ watches over. Every step is known in advance, surprises are unwelcome. Without an ‘i’ and ‘e’ we cannot call them ‘surprises’ so we called them ‘bugs’. These are not living bugs. We do not wince when they buzz past us, or scream when they walk with impunity across the bathroom mirror, or beg God for forgiveness as we move out of their way when they swing on a web strand from the mirror to the shower curtain. You do not need a voice when these bugs appear, errors which little ‘e’ failed to catch. There are ‘best practices’ to ‘fix’ these bugs putting everything back to its predictable order, repeating itself a hundred, a thousand, a million times over, one CPU cycle at a time. Vowel-less acronyms stand like sentinels in our midst for reasons we no longer question. Our centerpiece acronym – CPU (central processing unit) – no longer means what it once stood for and the world is silent. Most computers have more than one CPU – which one of them is ‘central’? Can there be more than one ‘central park’ in Manhattan? Can a physical object have more than one ‘center of gravity’? So how can a computer have multiple CPUs? Can’t we just give ‘C’ back to Cinderella where it used to be, and put ‘U’ back as the vowel in the pumpkin and ride of to the ball with the Prince? If this is too radical, can we simply say ‘processor’ where ‘p’ and ‘c’ have a meaning and ‘u’ is free to do what it wants? Can we start using real names and real words; will they help us find our inner voice?
One step at a time, reviving words is not as simple as it might seem – some have already been lost. Take one of the better known word trios in our culture: ‘PHP’, ‘MySQL’ and ‘Apache’. The first two are beyond hope lacking vowels, meaning and life, but what about ‘Apache’? When you hear ‘Apache’ your mind rolls through visions of life on the run, desert trails passing through deep canyons, men on horse back riding up these steep ravines, following passages known only to them. Riders grim with determination to escape the posses tracking them, posses whose dust clouds are visible in the distance. You feel involved, you have an opinion; you either want to ride with these figures or with their pursuers. A Horse’s hoofs gallop past a sidewinder that slithers quickly out of their paths. The snake will live to see another day, will the Apaches? Unfortunately we have come too late. This is not a living, breathing Apache. ‘Apache’ is the name of software, lifeless, ‘tuned’ and ‘configured’ – yet in ‘runs fast and efficient’. Ask ‘runs where?’ and the answer is ‘On Linux’. Wasn’t Snoopy the last thing that ran on Linus? Your ‘s’s and ‘x’s are crossed. It’s not the ‘Linus’ you grew up with, and there is no ‘Snoopy’. ‘Linux’ is an ‘operating system’ – a piece of ‘software’ that makes ‘hardware’ become more than a pile of metal junk. Software does not run ‘to’ places, it runs ‘on’ things. What is left for the inner voice if prepositions are gone with the words and words are gone with the vowels?
Yet there is more that needs to be undone. We have retaliated against the possibility of language revival by combining acronyms into super- acronyms which look like words. ‘Linux’, ‘Apache’, ‘MySQL’, ‘PHP’ have been combined into ‘LAMP’ an acronyms of acronyms – a linguistic abomination which will be all but impossible to undo at the price of another word lost to the language. This is not the lone lamp never turned off, whose bare bulb swings from the concrete ceiling of a cold Gulag cell, tingeing with yellow the ashen faces of starved humans stacked on wooden bunks. Gone are the neon lights that split the nights, the subways, the malls, and the tenement halls. These ‘lamps’ are no longer the headlights that illuminate the lion pack on the buffalo carcass. This is not the lamp in the searchlight that could have saved the Titanic. This is not even the lamp that you changed for the third time this month, wondering why it is that the new long-live-screw-in-neon-technology burns out faster than the older tubes it replaced. This is just an acronym of acronyms, shrinking the spoken language in to boilerplates of technical expressions devoid of living attributes. How will we get our words back? Perhaps in the plots of the books we read?
Not if you read our books. If you read the books that we read you do not come across characters or conflict or climax, or resolution. The only living creature is the writer whose picture you find smiling at you from a ‘thumbnail’ on the backside of the cover. Our writers are not narrators. The writers in the books I read take no part in the books plot. How could they, there is no plot, there is nothing at stake; just a list of instructions and examples and diagrams. There are no characters with a point of view. You do not have to form opinions; you only have to memorize. You do not have to follow a storyline; each chapter is an independent section of instructions to follow. You do not read for enjoyment. You do not expect to become enriched in ways you did not expect. You know exactly why you read each book. Each book is a recipe to ‘fix’, ‘change’, ‘configure’ or ‘fine tune’ something that was written in an older publication. After you read these books you are better equipped to search for minute differences in lists of ciphers that tell a machine what to do. You have a much better chance of placing little ‘i’, ‘e’ and ‘o’ where they will be most efficient. Our books are not the answer to finding your voice. Perhaps associations are?
As diabolic as it might seem, associations have not been spared. Squads of acronyms fiendishly organize in manners that seem to form sentences that tickle the imagination: ‘JAVA’ and ‘PERL’ and ‘RUBY’ and ‘PEAR’… Think of what it would have been like on the shore of the island of Java, savoring the moment you will present your love with a necklace of rubies and pearls which for now i s hidden in a bowl of tropical fruits – pears, mangoes, papayas and pineapples. For now you sit watching on a white strip of sand between the turquoise waters of a lagoon and the green line of palms behind you. You are watching a perfect red sphere slowly sink behind the waves, coloring the line of clouds in the horizon with orange and crimson searchlights towering into the evening sky. You sit and wait for the right moment to ask her to pass you the papaya ‘just beneath the pineapple’ so she would have to move the fruits… You watch her eyes reflecting the glimmer of the sunset, waiting for the moment they see, waiting for the jaw to gently drop, the eyes to open wide, the light gasp, the hand to reach out to pull the gems up and hold them to the last rays of light, a ring of fireflies glittering as the light plays tricks through their intricate cuts, a kaleidoscope of sparkles swaying gently in a trembling hand aided by the evening breeze. You watch the hand. This is the hand with the wedding ring , the ring that is twenty-five years old. You watch as she raises her other hand to spread the necklace to the light. You watch the hands as they move behind her head, coming at each other behind her neck to tie the necklace. You wonder about the power to calm these hands have when they gently stroke your cheeks, circling up and around your eyebrows and over your head. These are the hands that held the children close to her when she nursed them, the hands that clothed and patted, that played the piano and corrected spelling mistakes, hands that hugged and cuddled and carried and supported. The hands that held you close when you danced fumbling over your feet and hers. The hands quickly tie the tiny necklace buckle; women work their hands behind them so much better than men. The hands now come back to rest on yours. You see the scar on the thumb where the bread knife cut deep, there are so many stories that the skin on the hands of mothers has to tell. You lie quietly in the sand; she is on her side leaning a gainst you, her head resting on your chest, her hand across your body, your arm around her, feeling each other breath. You raise your head; your eyes meet. After being together for so long, are your eyes are all she needs to hear your inner voice?
But it is not to be.
JAVA, RUBY, PERL and PEAR are all illusions, mirages of beauty that dissipate into colorless technical detail: ‘PERL’ into a programming language, which lost its glory to ‘JAVA’ which succumbed to ‘RUBY’ – a newer programming gem, the silver bullet that supersedes even ‘PEAR’. More software, software that runs on ‘Linux’ which runs ‘Apache’ which runs the meaning away from the spoken language, shrivels associations to lines of code, diluting similes into configuration changes, emotions into performance statistics. No characters, no theme, many beginnings with no end in sight, a rat race of technology feeding on itself. Mechanical, methodical, measurable, reproducible, yes, reproducible, many times over, the only challenge is to keep up with the pace; irrelevance is to fall a few acronyms behind.
Perhaps if I went to that computer of mine, dialed into the VPN, opened an SSL connection over an MPLS circuit, ignored the RSS feeds, and dub-dub-dubbed to ‘Amazon’-’dot’-‘com’. Perhaps if I waited for a fraction of a second for a ‘Linux’ server running ‘Apache’ on the other end of Internet to return an ‘HTML’ page which allows me to search for an anthology of ‘Contemporary Short Fiction’ and to order the book from between the acronyms. What would happen if I read the stories? Isn’t each on of them a wealth of vowels with which to re-hydrate the dried flesh of the skeleton that is my language? Would I be able to revive the words, the sentences, the themes, the characters, their struggles, their victories, their ambivalence, their imperfect relationships and their noisy dialogs? Would I be able to listen to words and voices that sound from the pages, laughter, whispers, and shouts of joy and cries of anguish? Will all these rekindle my associations; will they open a porthole into a tunnel of imagination? If I dare crawl into that tunnel, will I not find my inner voice?