"Text Strings": the Way Computers See Language and the Way "Zombie Indexers" Read

        Competent human readers "parse" or visually organize text by grouping large units together as a group.  In the following instance, the phrases and clauses in different colors usually are seen sequentially, all together as units, rather than by visually assembling each letter into words and each word into its nearest coherent grammatical unit:

"Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent."  (Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765.  Vol. VIII)

The computer which is displaying this text to you sees it completely differently.  To computers, Johnson's sentence above, including the spaces between words, is stored or retrieved as the following string of ASCII code:

72 97 109 108 101 116 32 105 115 44 32 116 104 114 111 117 103 104 32 116 104 101 32 119 104 111 108 101 32 112 108 97 121 44 32 114 97 116 104 101 114 32 97 110 32 105 110 115 116 114 117 109 101 110 116 32 116 104 97 110 32 97 110 32 97 10 101 110 116 46

To a "zombie index program" like those used to compile book indexes that list only proper nouns (capitalized words), the text string you see as "72 97 109 108 101 116" is instantly recognizable as "Hamlet."  If a page contains important discussions of "the play's protagonist" without naming him, the indexing program will pass blindly by.  Similarly, if you are using a "Control F" search to look for "Hamlet" on this web page, your browser will highlight every instance of that ASCII code string but it will fail to highlight "the play's protagonist" or "the Prince of Denmark" or "the man who killed Polonius" or "Gertrude's son," all of which are ways of naming Hamlet.

        Trusting a computer to search a document is similar to trusting someone who cannot read the language to locate series of characters in sequence.  If they are very good at it, they will find all series of characters, but they will not know what they found.  Wouldn't you rather have a fully literate human being searching your most important sources for instances of ideas?

        If you want to play a bit with ASCII to text and text to ASCII conversion, this web site offers an application that can do both: http://www.unit-conversion.info/texttools/ascii/.  The program is interactive, and will produce ASCII code in the lower window every time you type English (including punctuation!) in the upper window.  Remember that ASCII, unlike many text-message senders, distinguishes between upper case (capital) and lower case (miniscule) letters.  Just don't mistake doing this act of encoding for reading what you have or writing something intelligent in the code. It's all computers are ordinarily capable of doing.