Saturday, March 11, 2006

It's all about playing in bogs

Archaeologists are really big on studying bog bodies (and the ones I've seen were certainly high on the Pitt Rivers' Scale of Weird-and-Super-Cool). Almost perfectly preserved by the bog environment, these material histories are able to persist through time in ways not possible in most other environments. However, like ground reclaimed in the Fens, what appears solid is actually full of breaches.

Bruce Sterling has posted his Emerging Tech talk and I'm still fixated on his fixation on words. This whole rationale behind coining neologisms interests me, and particularly how he understands terms like 'internet of things', 'spimes', 'theory objects', 'everyware', 'thinglinks' etc. are being mobilised to replace (with varying successes) what he considers to be no-longer-adequate terms like 'ubiquitous computation'. I think he understands perfectly well how much this is all language games and image wars, and he's playing for all it's worth.

But my favourite bit is when he talks about the need for bogs:
"I rather admire [Adam Greenfield's] term 'everyware.' It's certainly more elegant than 'ubicomp,' which is really a verbal disaster as an English noun, or 'ubiquitous computation,' which takes forever to say and is also hard to spell. I think that Everyware is somewhat confusing in verbal speech, though, because it's a pun. If you Google the word 'everyware' you find there's already a company named Everyware. My main critique of the term is that I'm not sure it carries enough new freight with it. It's a nicer name for an older grab-bag. Has this word been prematurely optimized? Is this word going to scale upward when we start really understanding this emergent technology?

Adam Greenfield is trying to speak and think very clearly, and to avoid internecine definitional struggles. As a literary guy, though, I think these definitional struggles are a positive force for good. It's a sign of creative health to be bogged down in internecine definitional struggles. It means we have escaped a previous definitional box. For a technologist, the bog is a rather bad place, because it makes it harder to sell the product. In literature, the bog of definitional struggle is the most fertile area. That is what literature IS, in some sense: it's taming reality with words. Literature means that we are trying to use words to figure out what things mean, and how we should feel about that. So don't destroy the verbal wetlands just because you really like optimized superhighways..."
So we're left to ponder how data and meaning accrete, how naming tends to stabilise things, and how definitional struggles are exactly where we should want to be. (Deja vu? Me too! If not firmly against disambiguation, this is at least convergence without consensus.)

While he notes interesting differences between hype and argot or jargon, Sterling falls short of acknowledging the ramifications of 'object' mis-identification (however transitional) or the implied reality that un-tagged or dis-connected 'objects' are effectively invisible. In this carefully sorted future/present world, Sterling also manages to exclude himself (and his followers) from discussions around similar or related ideas that do not mobilise the same (lest we forget machine-read) terms. In this world, we can be assured that most, if not all, of the discussions that accrete around terms like 'internet of things' involve people with the same interests speaking the same languages, or those with shared cultures, objects and literacies. So what happens to difference and disagreement?

Sterling piggy-backs Kuhn's paradigm shifts when he implies that when enough of the 'right' people (alpha-geeks) agree that a term is no longer useful to their interests, they agree to come up with new 'right' terms (like the ones above). And of course Sterling is most concerned with shifting processes or transitional states: this is where things happen, where things (be)come True. Where many stories are told, but only some persist.

As the man-himself writes:
Mood: celebratory
Now Playing: Hey lazyweb! Make somebody else do it!
Better her than me, boyo

10 Comments:

Anonymous Riad said...

Since you are interested in neologisms, you should check myware.
Seems like it is pretty new. I ll be interested to know what you think about it

http://money.cnn.com/2006/01/19/technology/futureboy/

http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/03/etech_felix.html

10:05  
Anonymous Riad said...

Since you are interested in neologisms, you should check myware.
Seems like it is pretty new. I ll be interested to know what you think about it

http://money.cnn.com/2006/01/19/technology/futureboy/

http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/03/etech_felix.html

10:06  
Blogger adamgreenfield said...

There's a way in which I think the notion of "playing around in bogs" linguistically and semantically is astonishingly elitist.

You and I and Bruce and Ulla-Maaria and Peter Morville and whoever can sit around all day and play semantic Scrabble, tweaking tiles until we've found some nomenclature that is optimally inclusive and euphonious and all that. But meanwhile these systems (and we all know, to a reasonable degree of approximation, which systems we mean) are getting built, and are having impact on lives and choices.

And I, at least, don't intend to refrain from discussing the situation until we manage to come up with a word that has the right mouthfeel.

In the end, I don't care if we agree to call these things spimejects or blogberts or qetzlpocapetls. I don't care if we call it all Fred - just so long as the people discussing the idea all know more or less what we mean. All of which is to say, I'm willing to countenance imprecision at the back end in return for utility now.

12:58  
Blogger Chris said...

A couple of thank yous... thanks for pointing to Bruce's blog (had no idea he blogged) and thanks also to the bullet point summary of Kuhn. Since I've only studied Kuhn in precis, it's interesting to have a deeper look at his content.

I'm not sure whether Kuhn's model can be applied to language drift, though, even if constrained to terms chiefly employed solely in an intellectual context.

As an example, just for consideration, the term 'avatar' for the player character in games has found apparently permanent footing in recent years. I still find a lot of people preferring 'player character' with its tabletop RPG backgrounds, but this linguistic battle has, I believe, already been 'lost'. Avatar has emerged as the dominant term. The use of player character is settling into its supporting role as a synonym.

This change happened rapidly, more rapidly than, say, the decay of 'factoid' into meaning a small fact, instead of something reported as fact (already reflected as an alternative meaning in some dictionaries).

In essence, word usage seems (to my sensibilities at least) more governed by natural selective processes, and not by the process of traditions upset by revolutions implied by Kuhn.

Of course, that said, Gould's view of evolution extends to include something not unlike Kuhn's, with long periods of 'stasis' (tradition) interrupted with periodic upheavals (revolutions). Perhaps this is a general pattern of systems capable of maintaining information.

Anyway, nice to hear someone else riffing around Wittgenstein's language games! It's a favourite topic of mine.

Thanks again, and take care!

22:28  
Anonymous Abe said...

also from the talk and rather salient:

"In the meantime, you DON'T WANT to avoid the contentiousness and the definitional struggles, exactly BECAUSE they REALLY ARE associated with those viewpoints, institutions, funding sources, and dominant personalities. The words are the signifiers for a clash of sensibilities that really need to clash. You are trying to wallpaper a wall that is still undergoing construction."

05:34  
Anonymous anne said...

Thanks riad - "myware" sure does suggest self-control and the triumph of individualism, doesn't it? Also seems to share something in common with Steve Mann's sousveillance, no?

Adam - you're preaching to the choir about elitism, and it seems to me you're attacking a straw man: I mean, who's actually suggesting it's a good idea to "to refrain from discussing the situation until we manage to come up with a word that has the right mouthfeel"? (However, I also get particularly frustrated when the identity of practitioner is reserved only for those who *do* things or *make* things - *useful* things, I might add - as if thinking and writing and talking are not doing and making.) In my mind, precision should not be the objective. Precision implies accuracy and requires enough certainty to make *profitable* exchange possible. Academic-speak, 'spimes' and 'everyware' have to be precise in order to be *sold*. But at this point I think everyone (specialists and non-specialists) could benefit from a little on-the-ground *uncertainty* and *imprecision*. I don't think we need the kind of precisely vague neologisms that make their into sales-pitches and conference keynotes and political speeches. I think we need to step into the murk and the muck - into the bog - and try to figure out some of the strengths and limitations of particular words based on how, where and by whom they're being mobilised. This isn't going to stop us from *getting things done*, but hopefully it will slow us down some and encourage us not to be so eager in advancing our own interests at the expense of others.

Chris - you're completely right to challenge my weak anaology between language games and paradigm shifts, but you know that words have pwoer, that words do things, so why do you think certain words "have legs" while others get amputated?

06:00  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

"Theory object" is pretty useful as well. It's the kind of concept that illustrates itself. I wanted to write about it so I started to trace the references, this is what I came up with:

"
It's a great word, and it's fun to track the trail: Anne tracks the word comes from Bruce, who traces it to Julian, who credits it to Tara."

11:57  
Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

Anne,
Neologism or not, there is a metaphor of conquest in the proposed game since the purpose is "taming reality with words". There are two struggles at work here: one between word makers (who's neologism wins out) and the other, a "taming".

Now, "tame" has a synonym in "domesticate" and "domestic" can reference _home_ and _nation_.
Making a home, building a nation. I ask if agonistics is the only game for making and building homes and nations. I have the work of Roger Callois in mind. See Aaron Rester's entry at U of Chicago, Keywords of Media Theory
http://www.chicagoschoolmediatheory.net/glossary2004/game.htm
Useful to remember the four categories of game (agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx)that Callois proposes. Equally useful is to consider the distinction between play (paidia) and game (ludus). One could read Sterling as a player in a competitive game (glory for the neologism that sticks) or an invoker of vertigo and simulation to bridge the va-et-veint between free play and structured game. Perhaps by chance, the man is thinking French and speaking English :)

03:24  
Blogger Anne said...

Thanks Francois - very thoughtful and thought-provoking!

04:07  
Blogger jbleecker said...

One way or another, the stakes in the name are both elitist (I came up with the word, so I get all the trackback love) and politically crucial. The name creates the near-future imaginary as to what the named can be or will become. (Like, whatever Father names son after himself and after his Father, thus ensuring a particular future. You all know the drill.)

So lots of words..create a multitude of possible future imaginaries. Write the future technology fiction and engross everyone who will listen with what is important or of consequence to you. Sort of a bit like coming up with the title of a book before its written it helps create the conditions of possibility for the book.

Sure, you'll want something Google'able, I guess, cause then more people are exposed to the word, and the odds go up that some design agent, with gusto and resources, will muster together an instantiation of what that design agent imagined the word could be assigned to. That design agents backfilling their imaginary into the word is what ultimately matters, imho. So, when I write about Blogjects, or Sterling, I imagine, writes about Spimes, there's an interest in inspiring the imagination and seeing what material instrumentalities get assigned that name.

07:01  

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