The Language of Technology vs. the Technology of Language

Friday, October 10, 2014
An exploration into language used to describe technology, and technology’s effect on language

Language, arguably, is the most important human invention. While other creatures have modes of communication, perhaps even a limited vocabulary, humans have taken language to the very extreme, evolving existing ones, creating new ones from scratch, and doing so with intra-generational speed.

The Language of Technology

It is common in the Silicon Valley to call oneself an “architect,” or talk of the “ecosystem” of devices (for example, the “iPod ecosystem”). We usurp these terms from other fields, sometimes to good effect, and at other times distorting their original meaning. Since my field is environmental science, I am not sure if I should feel slighted one someone uses the term “ecosystem” for the consumer-manifestation of technology, much of which can be directly connected to environmental degradation (note: electronics waste, toxic battery technologies, dependance on rare earth metals much of which are mined in China, a country with an extremely poor environmental and human rights record).

The books, “The Tentacles of Progress” and “Tools of Imperialism,” both by Daniel Headrick, and of course, the more famous “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond are worth reading.

I am not anti-technology. Far from it. My work and life have been intertwined with computer tech now for more than three decades. I enjoy the facilities it bestows on me, both the vastly enhanced analytical capabilities, but also the, and to me more important, softer capabilities like the ability to write my thoughts and to be in touch with those who are close to me but happen to be physically far away.

But, there is no doubting that the language of technology is usurping other fields, perhaps to try and gain familiarity or legitimacy. Recently I was annoyed by these spam-like emails I was getting from IEEE about the “rockstars” of big data. First, “big data” itself irks the crap out of me, but to add “rockstar” to it and show a photo of some dweeby guy who was babbling about an hour of excruciatingly boring stuff just made me lament for the likes of real musicians. I do concede that my irritation is a bit irrational, but only a bit. The fact is, technology affects us, and we don’t really fully know how.

The Technology of Language

Language is powerful, and like technology, it is used to serve our purposes. We use language to express love, but we also use it to oppress others. That is why poets and writers are almost always the first victims in a dictatorship. Not much needs to be said about this, but just a few random illustrations below.

The word “entrepreneur” used to have a really bad connotation.

“Entrepreneur” first came into English as a fancy name for a theatrical promoter — in French, the word just meant somebody who undertakes something, the same as the Italian “impressario.” But it was soon being used for people who promoted investments or ran business schemes, occasionally with a slightly unsavory connotation. A 1951 article in The New York Times described the gangster Frank Costello as a “slot machine entrepreneur.”

Here is an interesting conversation with Benjamin Netahyahu re. the language used for housing development in East Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: What makes that settlement worth the trouble?
NETANYAHU: These are not settlements. These are neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: But we’re talking here about 2,500 homes in East Jerusalem.
NETANYAHU: They’re not in East Jerusalem. They’re in South Jerusalem, actually.

alright then…

INSKEEP: It matters a lot to Israelis and Palestinians alike just what things are called. The differences in language suggest differences in ways of seeing the issue on the ground. So we’re going to get one perspective on the political wording in the Mideast from Ari Shavit. He’s a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He’s a historian, author of ”My Promised Land.” Welcome back.

INSKEEP: Just some basics here, why would someone call them neighborhoods instead of settlements? What’s the difference?

SHAVIT: You have to realize that both people need to really see each other, not to be blind to each other’s existence, and look for a fair, realistic way of dividing the land in a way that will not risk Israel’s security and future. The kind of petty debate over terms and terminology creates the wrong atmosphere, which makes it so difficult to move forward.

ISIS v. ISIL? The debate over what to call Iraq’s terror group is worth a read.

Of course, there has been that trend in India to rename a lot of cities to their original (or sometimes not even original but) Hindi names from their more popular names which were typically created by the English for ease of use. So, Varanasi became Banaras became Varanasi, and Mumbai became Bombay became Mumbai (countless other examples).

Digital Sublime

A few years ago I had lunch with Vincent Mosco who wrote a book called The Digital Sublime. Here is what I emailed to him on April 25, 2007, defending the internet:

Prof. Mosco,

Thanks for our brief discussion over lunch yesterday at the University Club. First, I want to say that I am very heartened and excited by your line of enquiry. As a technologist, I have tried to be careful to not mythologize my own field, and have always cast a deeply agnostic look around at my contemporaries who do so. I do believe, however, that this time it is different.

Technologies such as radio, phonograph, and television were ground-breaking, but because they were an einbahnstrasse, they also concentrated power in the hands of the few. Common folks could consume the offerings of these technologies, but they couldn’t produce them. Digital media technologies coupled with advances in networking, archiving and searching (let’s use the word “internet” to encapsulate all of this) have moved the power from central nodes to the edges. Not only I can now listen to what others have produced, I can produce my own and offer it to others without having to go through some powerful intermediary. I can’t listen to yesterday’s radio broadcast today or watch yesterday’s television show unless I somehow recorded them in the first place. But, online, I can. I no longer have to plan ahead, but I can do things ex post facto. Collaboration is making possible a “peer-production” model of knowledge-creation that was not possible before the internet.

Sure, some of the arguments are that technology is also causing rapid destruction of our natural environment, or is not benefitting the poorest of the poor. But, if we take away the internet, if we imagine that the internet didn’t exist at all, would there not be global warming and deforestation? Would the poorest of the poor be any better off?

While the internet is not sublime (and fie on those who say so), it is indeed different from other technologies. And, myth-making may also have an important role. Mythical stories of making it big fuel the entrepreneurial spirits of countless dreamers — sure, a lot of “crap” gets made in the process, but it is through constant attempts at innovation that new, truly innovative advancements arise. The desire to do well with the real possibility of being able to do so is the greatest force of change.

For these reasons, I feel that the Digital Sublime might be more appropriately re-thought of as the Technological Sublime instead of the internet being lumped together with everything else.