The Mind at Work: Daniel Dor on language as innovation
Published on December 09, 2020
Go to any business conference and between the buzz words and sales pitches there’s always a lot of talk about innovation. But a new approach to language suggests that talk itself may be the root of invention.
As the medium of work become increasingly digital, the amount of language we emit in the form of written text has exploded. Especially in this year of working from home, the volume of email, text messages, and commentary in apps has outpaced our ability to metabolize it all. In the desperate race to keep up, it’s easy to lose the true spark of collaboration: The art of conversation.
Only through talking with each other can we negotiate the difference between what we think we know and a new perspective we hadn’t considered. It’s exactly in the informality of the conversational exchange that we challenge and are challenged to go beyond ourselves and come to a new shared understanding. A meeting in which there is no conflict and no surprise is in fact not a very productive meeting.
Israeli linguist Daniel Dor has spent his career exploring the messy world of human language. His landmark book, The Instruction of Imagination, offers a very different picture of language and its evolution than Noam Chomsky’s pursuit of universal grammar that’s dominated the discourse for the past 50 years. By positioning language as a social technology that humans invented, Dor is challenging the long-held notion that language is a property of the individual brain: He places language in the social-technological domain, and re-thinks the brain of the speaker as an end-user of a social network.
“First we invented language, then language changed us.” —Daniel Dor
Dor sums up his contrary view in the concise phrase, “First we invented language, then language changed us.” This simple idea has very far-reaching implications. Not only did the invention of language lead to profound social changes due to our increased ability to coordinate our actions, it also led to physiological and cognitive changes including the shape of our mouths and the size of our brains. And these changes multiplied upon each other, creating new selection pressures at the population level. “It made such an impact on us,” Dor says, “that we can no longer imagine our lives without language. We changed ourselves in all kinds of ways in order to fit ourselves to our invention.”
His focus on the idea that language is socially constructed is complemented by his work with evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka on how these changes have played out behaviorally, cognitively, and genetically, over vast swaths of time. Jablonka’s theory of unlimited associative learning, detailed in the groundbreaking book she wrote with Simona Ginsburg, The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul, places the origin of consciousness during the Cambrian Explosion 500 million years ago. At that time, ocean creatures began to move freely, and learning to distinguish themselves from their environment became a matter of survival.
Without getting too deep in the (very deep) weeds of consciousness studies, the fact of consciousness presupposes a self, distinct from other selves, and from the world in general. Dor clarifies that “language is a social technology used by individuals.” Language, in his view, is not something primarily in our heads, but in the spaces between us. We are both aware of being part of this network and also of being a node within it. “The story of our uniqueness as a species,” he says, “is exactly the fact that we’re somewhere in the middle between these two things. But not in a simple way, in a very, very complicated way.” Language is a cultural construct, but its innovative capacity rests firmly on the distinct perspective of each individual speaker.
The messiness of language
This complication gives rise to what Dor refers to as the “messiness” of language. Linguists since before Chomsky have pursued the Platonic ideal that language itself is perfect, which means that since we’re not perfect—we’re all doing it wrong. Dor’s inversion elevates our actual broken and imperfect usage to being the essence of language. We’re always struggling to find words, correct our words, and repair the relationships between us as we speak, and this is actually how language works.
Perhaps this vernacular emphasis on language as it’s spoken explains why spontaneous speech feels more authentic and honest than prepared remarks. By allowing your words to be imperfect, by speaking off the cuff, you make room for your own individual perspective, and in turn acknowledge the perspectives of the people you’re talking to. This is particularly important, but even harder to achieve, now that more of our communication is happening over video conference. Dor teaches linguistics and communications at Tel Aviv University, and has found the transition to Zoom difficult. “I have one course with 260 people,” he says. “I know how to handle a class of that size in a huge lecture hall. I can feel them. I can throw a joke and dissolve tension. When I teach the 260 people now on Zoom, wow, it’s a whole different experience.”
Humor is very hard to pull off when you can’t read the room. As any good stand up comic knows, timing can make or break a punchline. “I think we’re experiencing pain trying to do the Zoom thing,” Dor continues. “I know I can’t crack jokes. The joke doesn’t travel to the other side. When you sit in class together, and one person laughs, then the other person laughs, it’s contagious. It’s not contagious over Zoom.”
The effectiveness of language is exactly its nonlinear effects—you laughing makes me much more likely to laugh, too.
This may seem like a trivial example, but it gets at the power of language and its fragility. When we say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we refer to the nonlinear effects of a system. The sum is merely linear, each of us laughing alone in our rooms. The effectiveness of language as a communication medium is exactly its nonlinear effects—you laughing makes me much more likely to laugh, too.
These effects are serious business. The case has been made, for example by philosopher Kieth Frankish in his meta-titled essay, Our greatest invention was the invention of invention itself, that all higher human cognitive abilities sprung from language. I don’t think this claim, based on Dor’s theory, contradicts cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky’s research on how our spatial sense underpins language. Evolution is better conceived as a spiral than a straight line, with many non-human creatures exhibiting advanced visual and spatial intelligence—but not language.
To understand why language led to invention, Dor suggests looking at evolution. “For tens of millions of years, when we were like the chimps, we developed a full-fledged cognitive capacity that was totally individualistic.” In other words, creatures processed information solely within themselves. The great innovation of language was the ability to process information in parallel with others. Parallel processing is a familiar concept in computing, where it has led to the exponential growth of the digital world. Dor contends that language was the major driving factor in the growth of social complexity that gave rise to human societies and the concurrent expansion of human cognitive abilities.
Despite these amazing advances, Dor points out that “the experiential gaps between us are always still there, we’re still different from each other, we’re still computing information on an individual basis. But we are also end users of a social network.” Each of us is always navigating this dual identity, figuring things out for ourselves while simultaneously solving problems together.
“These successful new social strategies are also a major key to our unique suffering in life,” he continues. “Because we’re always torn between the way we experience the world and what’s expected of us normatively, to think, and feel, and do.”
Crossing the experiential gap
The notion of experiential gaps is central to Dor’s theory of language as a technology for what he calls “the instruction of imagination.” Earlier mimetic forms of communication, which were already unique to humans, allowed our ancestors to point or grunt at something visible in the world to call attention to it. This was already the beginning of parallel computation. Language, however, has taken it all to a new level: it invokes what isn’t there. Rather than pointing to a shared experience, language creates mutual understanding of something that can’t be immediately experienced. It does this, Dor contends, through symbolic expressions—words—that encode the speaker’s experience in a form that instructs the listener to recreate that experience within their own imaginations.
“Where we really need to be able to communicate, this is exactly where we find it most difficult.” —Daniel Dor
Language attempts to build bridges across the experiential gaps between people. “When we’re very close to each other, in terms of our experiences, in the way we look at the world, our words are much simpler. But then, in many ways, we don’t have to talk because we already agree,” Dor explains. “On the other hand, where we really need to talk about things is where the experiential gap between us is very wide. Where we really need to be able to communicate, this is exactly where we find it most difficult.”
Dor’s knowledge about these gaps and the difficulty in overcoming them has been shaped, among other things, by his experiences as an advocate for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. "I think that my sense of the fragility of linguistic communication is in part a result of a long experience that where it’s most needed, say in negotiating really serious relationships, it fails us all the time, because, for example, we feel that our words mean the same thing, but they don’t.”
Although we may despair that two sides in an age-old conflict may never come to a mutual understanding, bridging these gaps is exactly where the power of language and its capacity for innovation most clearly expresses itself. “Had it been the case that humanity somehow reached a point,” Dor says, “where everybody would just be reflecting the normative meanings of society—that is, we would just be end users, period—there would be no more invention.” If you take the idealized notion of language as perfect communication to its logical conclusion, it would erase the differences between people and lead to stasis. As the Talking Heads song goes, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”
What does this mean for the future of work where being in the same place with your coworkers may become more exception than rule? Talking about his experiences teaching on Zoom, Dor says, “We’ve lost the physical proximity. And we’ve lost all the thousand ways in which our bodies talk to each other without us being even aware of. Sharing the here and now is the basis of all social relationships.” Nevertheless, because of our differences, our communication will continue to evolve, even if we can’t anticipate how.
Dor has noticed that indeed some students are responding positively to the change. “There’s a type of student who does better on Zoom than in the class. There’s something about the security and the convenience of being in your own home, in your own room, not in the class with other people, that for some people makes it a more relaxed situation. And they’re capable of participating more in the discussion,” he explains.
This Fall, he had his first class with students he had never met in person. “There was a certain seriousness in my first year students this year on Zoom that I didn’t see in class. There isn’t a lot of chitchat and laughing and all that, which is a sad part of this thing,” he says. “But when they actually opened their cameras, many of them felt to me like they were more seriously focused on what’s happening than they were in class. I can’t prove that, but I think it could be because we’re all having to change a certain strategy in the way we communicate.”
Distance and complexity
We have always had many strategies for how to communicate. Language added an enormous range to these strategies, and then writing added another huge range. “I think there are some conversations that are better had in email or in writing than face to face,” says Dor, “look at the long history of letter writing.” He cites the example the philosopher Karl Popper, who wrote 100,000 letters in his lifetime, as a famously remote communicator. But Dor acknowledges there are other kinds of conversation that really benefit from physical proximity.
From Dor’s perspective, this difficulty of learning how to communicate in new ways is an essential part of language. “If you look at the dynamic of the development of communication through human evolution,” he explains, “you can see that there’s always this connection between the distance between people and their communication capacities.” Language itself was the thing that originally let us increase this distance, and we’re increasing it still. It may be that “Zoom fatigue” is just a symptom of learning how to increase our communication capacity in this new environment. The constant, Dor says, is “this relationship between the complexity of communication and the distance between the communicators.”
It’s easy to imagine how the telegraph had to quickly morph into the more detailed forms of communication required by greater distances, but Dor doesn’t glamorize the communication styles of office life. Before he was an academic, he was a newspaper editor in the ’80s, and his experience in the newsroom was typical of that time. “A lot of the communication was not really face to face when I was there. So it was internal emails, telephone, fax. But most of the face to face communication was purely informational: ’You’re taking this story to page 17? Yeah, I’ll get you the picture.’”
His first experience with working in a virtual way came in 2011, when he and his partner, Lia Nirgad, founded an advocacy NGO, The Social Guard, to send volunteers to monitor the Israeli Parliament and inform the public on issues of social justice and civic equality. Instead of renting physical office space, they “arranged an office on Facebook with closed groups for different things. And it worked wonderfully,” Dor reports. “There was actually a sense that a lot of people can contribute much more to the work because they don’t have to come to work, they can do it from home.”
Drawing the connection between this organization and our general experience now of remote work, Dor says, “we’re losing something that we had, when we were in greater proximity to each other, but now we can talk from larger distances. And this sounds like a very good thing.” Distributed work on a global scale is in fact a new invention. “There’s a whole set of problems that don’t get exposed until you start using an invention. What we are experiencing now are the problems.”
Innovation and invention
Perhaps the most important problem to solve is how to keep innovating and making new inventions. Dor’s theory of language is instructive here. If the greatest need for language occurs when it must cross the greatest experiential gap, then we will innovate with language in proportion to the diversity of the speakers. This extends the now familiar idea that diverse teams are more innovative by explaining one of the key mechanisms through which this innovation occurs.
“What happens in a group that allows for this construction of something new on the basis of the partial inputs of different people?” asks Dor. “Like what happens in a group of jazz players, they improvise and all of a sudden, there’s something. Later you ask them, that wonderful phrase, who thought of that in your rehearsals? And none of them will be able to say, because it came from the group.” During the pandemic a lot of new music has been created by people who are not in the same place, so the creative community is a good place to look for how to overcome the current difficulties.
The relationship between language and music is an important topic itself, but clearly the two co-evolved in a spiral of increasing sophistication. What’s striking in this example is the observation that when musicians get together they have a will to make music. That will can overcome the differences between them, and often the larger the stylistic gap the more original the resulting music.
“Most people in most circumstances are very afraid of exposing their differences. They feel under constant pressure to adapt themselves to the demands of workplace.” —Daniel Dor
So it is with language. Both sides of the exchange must be motivated to cross the gap, and the wider the gap, the more motivation needed. Here we cross into the territory where meeting over Zoom is not necessarily the biggest impediment. By this account, organizations that want to promote innovation need to simultaneously bring more diverse voices together while also providing compelling problems to solve. Most importantly, they need to allow a group sensibility to emerge. A 2017 report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that companies with more diverse leadership teams earned almost half of their total revenue from “new products and services launched over the past three years,” compared to just over a quarter for companies with less diverse leadership teams.
Although hiring a diverse workforce is necessary to boost innovation, it’s not sufficient. “Most people in most circumstances are very afraid of exposing their differences,” Dor says. “They feel under constant pressure to adapt themselves and their personality to the demands of workplace.” This adaptation is part of what makes communication and collaboration possible, and really does benefit from showing up in person, especially for new hires. “There’s something more natural about coming to work every day and gradually becoming a person of the company,” he continues. “You very easily start seeing words that are company words, and you start using the lexicon.”
From lexicon to encyclopedia
The notion of shared lexicons is very important to Dor’s theory. A lexicon is a set of words used by a group of people in a certain context. Each profession has its lexicon of jargon and acronyms, and most companies and even individual teams develop them as well. What’s crucial is that these shared vocabularies are invented by many people together over a period of time. A lexicon imposed by a single person is very unlikely to stick. To say that a shared language is necessary for communication is also to acknowledge that these languages develop over time, through trial and error, and much misunderstanding along the way.
The complement to lexicons, the weft to the warp in the weave of language, are what Dor calls encyclopedias, collections of observations that either conform (fully or partially) with the shared lexicon or not. In this way, each of us identifies the gaps between what is mutually assumed and what is individually experienced. We both contribute our individual understandings to the shared vocabulary of our colleagues, and also learn from them.
In many ways, this distinction provides a blueprint for how teams can work in a distributed way. Much of what knowledge workers do is read and write these encyclopedia entries based on a common lexicon. These are the equivalent of the newspaper editor deciding what page a story will go on—as long as the story fits there, no further discussion is required. But some of the work, and arguably the most important, involve contentious conversations that eventually lead to new terms in the shared lexicon, like a new story type or a whole new publication.
“Figuring out a way to get into each other’s shoes, while understanding how these shoes are different from mine. This is asking a lot from people.” —Daniel Dor
For the first kind of work, shared vocabulary and shared social norms are very useful. We don’t want to spend more energy than necessary on the things we already agree on. But the second type of work requires a more divergent mindset. Dor says these kinds of real conversations require, “Figuring out a way to get into each other’s shoes, while understanding how these shoes are different from mine. This is asking a lot from people. People need to be in very particular situations in order to be able to do that.” And this is exactly when being together, at least at the same time if not also in the same space, can be most helpful.
Teams that already had good digital systems in place for simple information processing and had established the kinds of interpersonal trust that allow for honest conversation have done better during lockdown than those that didn’t. But coming up with genuinely new products and services, like the companies in the BCG report, will take more than that to sustain. “Wherever you introduce an innovation of this type, everything starts firing around it, including personality types,” Dor says. “If a certain job has required, for a long time, the ability to handle complex social relationships within the same room—and all of a sudden it takes new capacities—eventually you will need people to change.”
Because work is so much about the communication between people, who those people are really matters. Because we invented language to bridge the experiential gaps between us, we have to acknowledge those gaps by getting to know each other, and that may now require more effort and intention. Along with the freedom and flexibility of distributed work comes a narrowing of the scope of familiarity with our coworkers. “I think that we’re approaching a situation where you can have 10 people working with you on a daily basis, for years,” Dor laments. “And you’ll never know if they take sugar or not in their coffee.”