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IoT: from hieroglyph to alphabet

Kom Ombo - Egypte
Kom Ombo, Egypt

The alphabet revolution

Nothing is simpler than the alphabet: children learn it from about 3 years old, at 4 or 5 years old it is fully assimilated. However, its introduction required a deep transformation of writing and thinking: going from a sign language to a language of sounds is not an easy trail; it is certainly one of the inventions with the most impact on our environment, along with flint cutting, agriculture, metallurgy, printing, steam engine, electricity, vaccination or the web.

Preceded by the cuneiform (Sumer, IVth millennium BC) and hieroglyphic (Egypt, IIIrd millennium BC) writing, the first alphabet seemingly appeared in the XIVth century BC, in what now makes up Syria, Lebanon and Israel (Ugaritic script). After many adventures, deformations, reversals and inversions of characters, it gradually evolved into Greek and finally our Latin alphabet.

Introducing alphabet does not consist in improving hieroglyphic writing, but in making a frank rupture: we pass from a writing of things to a writing of words. The writing carries now the sounds of the spoken language and therefore the language itself.



The advantages of the alphabet in a technological context

We must relativize the advantages of the alphabet (phonetic writing) compared to scriptures based on hieroglyphs, pictograms or ideograms by taking into account the context. Scriptures based on ideograms are particularly rich, beautiful and evocative, and establishing a hierarchy would be irrelevant. In our context, communication in a technological environment, let’s stress these:

  • Simplicity – There are only a few signs to remember, coding is extremely effective. The Latin alphabet (more than 80% of the content over the Web) comprises only 26 letters plus some diacritics (accents, tilde, etc.) depending on the language. Arabic has 28 letters, Hebrew 22, Russian 33, Farsi 32, Modern Turkish 29, Bengali script 50, etc. In comparison, understanding a Chinese-language newspaper requires the mastery of 3,000 logograms, and large dictionaries for scholars have up to 50,000.

  • Transparency – Unlike hieroglyphic writing, alphabetic one does not carry “meaning”, it carries “sounds”. The passage from sound to meaning (the very object of language) is left to the speakers. Computer science will say that alphabetic writing is a low-layer protocol (transmission), transparent to the use you make of it (the application).

  • Flexibility – Spoken language is extraordinarily flexible: we can express the same choice in a thousand different ways without altering the meaning we wish to convey. The alphabetic writing, which codes sounds directly, conveys language without constraining it, leaving it with all the flexibility it is capable of.

  • Neutrality – Alphabet writing is neutral and allows transmitters and receivers to be decoupled, each ignoring the details of the other’s semantic conversion. This characteristic is essential for an open and simple communication, the knowledge of all the details of each interlocutor being impractical (imagine that we need to understand the thought process of each person with whom we communicate, even for actions as simple as going shopping or taking a taxi).

IoT hieroglyphs

Applications and connected objects communicate through APIs (Application Programming Interface) which define both concepts (on/off, open/close, color, address, temperature, etc.) and their access. This meaning/language entanglement is the source of many problems, in particular concerning solutions interoperability.

As each API is specific to the connected application or device, there are as many ‘signs’ as there are applications and devices. APIs are the hieroglyphs of information technology. Worse, because each device or application, even similar but coming from a different editor, has its own API: the scribes of Ancient Egypt would have had a very complicated life if they had needed a specific sign to designate each owner’s oxen or cats.

Thirty years ago, networks made their ‘language revolution’ (with URIs and IP protocols in the broad sense), allowing the emergence of the Internet and the Web. The necessary generalization of IoT requires the Internet of Things to do the same, transforming API-hieroglyphs into simple, transparent, flexible and neutral communication channel, of which natural language is a … natural candidate (cf Natural language: a child’s play).


If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read IoT interoperability will be semantic or will not occur or head over to our Solution page to learn about the other benefits of natural language and no-code.

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