On Cyber-Social Meaning

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Much of the focus of recent discussion about the nature and social impact of computing has been on algorithmic processes that purport to imitate humans by their “artificial intelligence.” This has been to the neglect of semantic processes managed by computers, and these are particularly powerful because their scope and effects are so different from human intelligence. The semantic processes that we examine in this article radically extend the limitations of natural language, long-term memory, and the range of sensitivity of the human sensorium. To make its case, the article takes as its reference point some semantic primitives, expressed in traditional grammar as nouns, adjectives, verbs, and prepositions. Parsing these semantic datum points in computer-mediated meaning, we find emerging a new alliance of the social and the mechanical, a human–machine symbiosis that we call “cyber-social meaning.” This has the potential to change our human meaning capacities as much as literacy did at the time of its emergence, whether for better or for worse. The result is a frame of meaning that subsumes and in some respects supersedes natural language, that grounds representation in the material, and that for practical purposes turns semantics into an ontological question.