Small alphabets

Updated December 05, 2019

When designing alphabets for emergence, constrain the alphabet, but don't constrain what may be written with it.

Constrain the alphabet. Keeping the alphabet small makes it easy to learn. It also forces you, the designer, to create a composable alphabet. With a smaller set of letters, expressiveness is achieved by designing rules that allow letters to be composed with each other in many different ways.

...But don't constrain what may be written with it. Alphabets that produce open-ended emergence — written language, chemistry, DNA — don't place a limit on the number of letters you may combine in sequence, or the meanings you may construct with those letters. Anything achievable within the rules of the alphabet is permissable. This generates an open-ended possibility space.

  • DNA has a tiny alphabet (ATCG), but no limit on the number of basepairs that may be chained together, and no constraint, outside of natural selection, on the phenotypes that may be generated.
  • The web defines a set of technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), and rules for combining them, and does not censor what may be created with those technologies. This permissionless system continues to generate surprising new business models.

When working with genetic algorithms you want to define the smallest alphabet of genes that can pragmatically express the desirable morphospace.

Can we analyze App Stores through this same heuristic? Native apps have a large alphabet, in the sense of access to many low-level device properties. App review limits what may be written with this alphabet. This constrains permissionless innovation to those innnovations which are compatible with the host company's goals, rather than constraining innovation to that which is possible according to the rules of the alphabet.