I have Adam Greenfield (whose recent book I still haven’t read, in part because I’ve re-immersed myself waist-deep a couple of decades since last time in Gene Wolfe’s richly rewarding Book of the New Sun) and coffee to thank for kickstarting me into thinking about some of the ideas I threatened to write about here. For some more background, Anne Galloway has a working bib(?)liography here, if you’re interested in the subject. I haven’t read any of that stuff, I’m just pointing to it in case, unlike me, you like to be informed before you gas up and start running your mouth down to the riverbank.
In his speech at Etech, Bruce Sterling militated against the idea that trying to settle on a name for a node and nexus of emerging ideas — theory objects, which he describes as ‘idea[s] which [are] not just a mental idea or a word, but a cloud of associated commentary and data, that can be passed around from mouse to mouse, and linked-to […] a concept that’s accreting attention, and generating visible, searchable, rankable, trackable trails of attention’ — is necessarily a good thing.
After admiring Adam’s (and I merely assume without force of authority or any research at all that it’s actually his coinage) euphonious term ‘everyware’, he goes on to say

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. New Orleans lost a lot of its mud and wetlands. Eventually, the storm-water rushed in, found no nice mud to bog down in, and came straight up over the levees.
There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.

Adam pushes back, saying “But the naming of things is a matter of primary importance […] …people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality. This is one big reason why an Internet of Things is a problematic notion to me.”
There’s all sorts of rich veins to be (data-)mined here. Let me give it a wonderchicken once-over.
Bruce is right to say with qualification that in some sense, literature is taming reality with words. Hell, everything that everyone could possibly say about art is true, because ‘art’ itself has become a term so diffuse that we can defensibly apply it to any human activity. We’ve both gained and lost something through that, and depending on how your daddy treated you (that is to say, whether your mind is of a ‘conservative’ cast or not), the process has been one of either evolution or erosion. Both can be equally true, simultaneously, and are, I think.
But I think the sense in which Bruce is right is a very limited one — the reality that is ‘tamed’ by the writer is not the objective one that is some approximation of what Is and what we acknowledge to exist through spoken or unspoken consensus, it’s the writer’s own reality. To what extent that subjective reality overlaps with or can be superimposed on that of the reader, and to what extent the work then has meaning to the reader, is a function of the writer’s skill, perhaps.
When the theory object is named, variously and haphazardly, through both the work of someone mining the literary vein, and through “the contentiousness and the definitional struggles [….] associated with those viewpoints, institutions, funding sources, and dominant personalities” reality is not being tamed, though. Taming is not naming, and neither, as we’ll see Adam Greenfield suggest, I think, is naming taming.
Bruce says “the words are the signifiers for a clash of sensibilities that really need to clash,” and that, I can agree with. Without conflict, the story goes nowhere, and bores the tits off of all of us.
Now that’s all probably old ground in literary theory or something, except maybe for the tits part. I’ve never studied it, and this is just my butt talking, as usual. Anyway, onwards!
Bruce then makes a leap that I can’t follow from “There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear” to

What’s the victory condition? It’s the reaction of the public. It starts like this: “I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about.” Then it goes straight and smoothly through to “Good Lord, not that again, that’s the most boring, everyday thing in the world.” That’s the victory. To make completely new words and concepts that become obvious, everyday and boring.

He gets there by way of acknowledging that his neologism ‘spime’

is a verbal framing device. It’s an attention pointer. I call them “spimes,” not because I necessarily expect that coinage to stick, but because I need a single-syllable noun to call attention to the shocking prospect of things that are plannable, trackable, findable, recyclable, uniquely identified and that generate histories.
I also wanted the word to be Google-able. If you Google the word “spime,” you find a small company called Spime, and a song by a rock star, but most of the online commentary about spimes necessarily centers around this new idea, because it’s a new word and also a new tag.

So, if I’ve got this right, he’s saying that there is a ‘victory condition’ in language, which is that a neologism or new phrase to describe some emergent theory object becomes ‘obvious, everyday, and boring’, but that there is no permanent ‘victory condition’ — “you can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.”
Juxtaposing these two quotes would appear to me to reduce what he’s saying to the idea that language is constantly changing, which is, it must be said, trivially true. And it smells a little like an excuse for coming up with a crappy word like ‘spime’, which reminds me of SpumCo, a felicitious mental href, but probably not the one intended. In this case, the Author’s done a piss-poor job of taming his reality with words and handing it off, to me, at least. But I’m more than willing to cut him some slack, because he does kick a fair degree of ideational ass.
I’m not going to be able to go all the way down the path to the riverbank with Adam either, though, because, while Bruce seems to be proposing (on this admittedly minor point) the trivial conclusion that language mutates constantly but First Logos Movers Get Mindshare (or second movers, pace Winer), Adam seems to place inordinate importance on the ‘rightness’ of names for things, although his focus is outwards. He looks at the spectre (or boon) of a bit-chirping silent cacophany of embedded-arphid objects interpenetrating our daily lives and rightly suggests that calling it an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Well, again, I think he’s right and wrong. There is no such thing as the right word or phrase, or the Best One. That would not even be true if there were only one language our species shared. There is the one that wins, and it is true — and I think both Adam and Bruce would agree with this — that whatever word or phrase achieves that temporary victory condition will shape both our thinking and attitudes about the element of our loosely-joined consensus reality to which that word or phrase points. Now and in future. This can be a bad thing, or a good one, or both. Bruce talks in his speech about the cerebral fallout from out adoption of the word ‘computer’, and he’s bang on in his discussion of it, as is Adam when he says “people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality.” Even though they’re paddling their canoes in slightly different directions.
Words are poor things, but they have power. But there is no best, just as there is no ‘best writer’, for reasons I talked about up there a ways.
Right then. This leads me out of the vale of words to the Thing Itself, and I thank Adam for helping to crystallize the ideas that fill me with some fear and not a little loathing for an ‘internet of things’ (or whatever the hell you want to call it).
That, again, is this: an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Adam describes it this way: “Things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves, but my primary allegiance has to be to the meaning that things derive as a consequence of their use by human beings.”
This is right and true, and reaches far deeper than language to touch the core of how we experience and shape our experiences of whatever external reality may actually be. A rock becomes a ‘chair’ when we use it as such. A plant becomes a ‘drug’ or a ‘food’ when we use it in certain ways. A child makes a concave object out of clay in his art class, but his father may not know it’s an ‘ashtray’ until he is told that is the intended function. I date myself with that example. Ah well.
You can guess that I actually go further than Adam, maybe, if you’ve managed to follow along this far. I am inclined to believe that the idea that ‘things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves’ to be contradictory to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.
Which is all a little too much, no doubt, and the coffee is wearing off, so I’d better get to the bridge.
Here’s the meat, finally: an ‘internet of things’ can serve us — individuals — about as much as it references us, which is ‘not at all’, or perhaps at best ‘not much at all’. Yeah, sure, I’ll be able to find some useless crap that went missing in my 800 square foot apartment (whose front door sends a ping and a doorshot jpeg to the local police each time it’s opened and closed), shit that I probably lost because I didn’t need it in the first place, but was brainfellated into buying by some stealth guerilla-marketing asshole in a miniskirt at the bar the night before. Sure, my fridge’ll be able to talk to the food packages, or note their absence, and talk to the grocery store to order more, and the packages’ll be able to talk to the stove so my cooking gets better, and my doctor’ll be able to subscribe to my fridge’s RSS feed and know that I’ve been eating too many goddamn eggs again and text-message instructions to my microwave oven, or whatever gleaming Jetsons future you can spin out of the coming welter of ubiquitous data. There might be some benefits for those of us who like the idea of being part of the hive.
But what small good I might see in our daily lives I see dwarfed by the massive benefits that would accrue to the Usual Suspects in that future world — governments and corporations, our employers and our creditors, our health-care providers and law-enforcement agencies.
Here’s today: if you live in London, you get photographed an average of 300 times a day going about your daily business. If you live in America, you can be wiretapped without warrant on the thinnest of pretenses. Data about where you spend your money and who you talk to is available for a price, and a mighty low one. If you live in Korea, the government can get records of text messages you’ve sent on your mobile phone, just because the want it, and then send you a text message to tell you you’ve been indicted. Search engines hand over their records when asked. ISPs rollover for the RIAA and MPAA as a matter of course. Use a credit card and leave a snailtrail of your cashfree life in the databases, and you can’t do much without picture ID, including travel domestically. Total Information Awareness didn’t go away, it was just rebranded.
The forces that created this kind of culture are the same ones pushing this technology out, because they have the most to gain. You know, the invisible hand of the market and all that. These are the same forces that made barcodes ubiquitous, and Bruce, at least, is of the opinion that RFID-tagged objects will achieve the same universal penetration of our daily lives in a few decades, profligately pouring out their data all the while. The volume of human data now is a stream of bat’s piss compared to the dataAmazon™ our internet-of-things ubiquitous arphids will push out. And then? Our ability to get lost — not just our things, but our selves — disappears in a wireless byteburst. When we live immersed in a thunderous and silent torrent of raw data generated by everything we touch, so ready for mining, will there be anything we do that is not recorded in some way? There’s no sacrifice involved for the companies and the governments; pretty clearly there’s opportunity for a massive payoff in their abilities to sell to us, to monitor us, to datamine ever cleverer ways to give us what we want, and to keep us in line. Edward Bernays would be pitching a pants-tent over this stuff. Are we prepared to sacrifice what little remains of our ability to be free autonomous actors for the minor gains we might see as individuals? Me, I say ‘f–k, no’.
That’s all a little orwellian-apocalyptic, I know. But the future we’re talking about looks like a corporatist dictatorship-by-the-advertariat stealth-totalitarian wet dream. And it’s the kind of dystopia writers in Bruce Sterling’s tradition have warned us about, over and over again. I’m a little confused at his apparent enthusiasm for it.
We could go blackhat and hack it, those of us with the skills and the will, of course, like Paul Ford suggested a long time back, about something related-but-different

The cultural future of the Semantic Web is a tricky one. Privacy is a huge concern, but too much privacy is unnerving. Remember those taxonomies? Well, a group of people out of the Cayman Islands came up with a “ghost taxonomy” – a thesaurus that seemed to be a listing of interconnected yacht parts for a specific brand of yacht, but in truth the yacht-building company never existed except on paper – it was a front for a money-laundering organization with ties to arms and drug smuggling. When someone said “rigging” they meant high powered automatic rifles. Sailcloth was cocaine. And an engine was weapons-grade plutonium.

but that would take too much damn energy.
I’m willing to be schooled to the contrary, but I don’t see much light at the end of this particular tunnel.

People Say Stuff Sometimes, Thoughts That, If Not Deep, Are At Least Wide, Uncrappy
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Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. Hey Stav, thanks for the shoutout. Well, it’s deeper than a shoutout, obviously, but…thanks.
    There’s also some discussion on the same theme here; you may be interested (and are warmly solicited) to share your point of view.

  2. Oh, and…
    Not to self-link again, but I too am curious about Bruce’s enthusiasm for something that strikes me as so self-evidently Bad; I expressed my dismay in October 2004, in this piece. I do believe you’d approve, at least in part.

  3. After reading “Shaping Things” and remembering Heavy Weather and listening to his SXSW chat, I think that Sterling is somewhat fascinated with the idea of things going to hell in a handbasket. (The last bit of Shaping Things gives an interesting perspective on utopia vs dystopia.)
    …of course, I’m still one of those people who continues to be annoyed by the word “blog”…and don’t get me started on “podcast.”
    I find it hard to avoid that sense of deep dread about this stuff, at least at this point in human history.
    And I really wish I’d gone to AG’s session at SXSW, as the one I went to in that timeslot wasn’t very interesting, honestly. 🙁

  4. So, cuz, I’m wondering if a spime fell in a forest — would you take a wide berth in order to avoid getting any on your shoes? I have a few thoughts on the naming of Things… but one aspect that seems to have been left out of the power of the name and the poverty of word power is that the word or name itself has its meaning to the “spime” or “onto” creator and wholly different feelings for the reader of that same word. Despite the implied or intedended meaning of the painted phrase, what is received and processed can be (and I’d argue often is) misconstrued in whole or in part. Words aren’t like paints, we all have different contexts with which we interpret that which we read or hear. With paints, we can see red or blue and the words are all about the subtleties of the feelings in the art.
    Good Elmira boy Malcolm Gladwell’s description of the childhood dissonance over Big Bird deciding that he should really choose an actual name – meant that kids can’t connect the big yellow fluffy freak with the name Roy — but Big Bird works fine, being descriptive as it is. We’re all just old kids, aren’t we? Just some ponderings…
    As for the bleak future working in the data-mines, I’m of two minds. One one hand, being the lazy tool I am – wouldn’t it be nice for all of the things that I want to be just presented to me on a platter. No more deciding… so easy. And what do I have to pay? A bit of privacy? My right to quiet or not so quiet sedition? A few free mugshots a day? My individuality? My self? I guess that’s the other mind… Is it a Bradbury/Orwell future we have ahead or scarier still is it a Walmart world ahead?

  5. Walmart, definitely, I think. But Walmart with iron bars on the inside.
    By the way, I listened to Cory Doctorow’s notpodcast reading of his award-nominated story I, Robot yesterday, and it’s both excellent, and very apropos of this discussion. Go, listen!

  6. From William Safire’s column “On Language” in the most recent New York Times Magazine. Barzun, whom he quotes, is Jacques Barzun, emeritus professor at Columbia University. Also, it should be noted, the dude’s, like, 97 fucking years old. And I mean that in a good way…
    “The fallacy behind perpetual recoinage,” Barzun continued, “is to suppose that words must describe instead of stand for and evoke. For a reasonably stable language, words must continue to cover new details, and they can: we *ship* goods by truck and plane. We have *cash* in the bank though it is only a balance and not even written down. The *bath room* has only a shower stall. The table and bed *linen* are of cotton thread with some plastic intertwined. A *lecture* is not necessarily read. I am *typing* on a computer that uses no type. The man you quote who said record store was ‘outdated but still in use’ didn’t stop to think. What are CD’s and DVD’s if not records?”
    He points this out, but doesn’t comment as to whether these terms are still around because, somehow, they’re inherently more appropriate, more apt as “attention-pointers,” as it were. Or, perhaps, they’re simply the words that were hiding in the basement while others were thrown against the wall during the always-churning, usually-subtle linguistic revolution. Either way, those words now have a chance to “stand for and evoke,” only because they went through the pupal stage of description (e.g. “linen” really was once made of linen, etc.) Somehow, I think, the speed at which language is now mutable does it a disservice–it doesn’t allow the bedrock to form, and as a result, it can no longer be called “reasonably stable.” I admit, the sheer wind-in-your-hair pace of it all, and the fact that, hey, we’re all invited to join in! is exciting upon first glance, but, I think, there’s a very big risk that we allow language to fall into the culture of “new and shiny.” The words being created in the environment you describe above, Stavros (“spime,” anyone? Fucking “SPIME?”) neither describe, nor evoke–or, at least, the attempt to make them evoke what’s in the creator’s head is done by cramming it down our throats (see Sterling’s comment about Googling “spime”). Marketers have been doing the same thing for years, and this just makes the mob bigger. The bigger the mob gets, the less I trust it.
    However, I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that I have this ass-backward, and, from the initial instability of web-speak Beta, comes eventual stability. It just makes me itchy.

  7. Hmm, interesting points, McGee. I’m not sure that I’m entirely against the ‘wind in your hair’ aspect, and I’m also not sure that it’s entirely new. If you we look at the history of English, it’s been one of constant, relatively rapid mutation and change from without, as well. One of the things I love about Korean is how it’s changing at a rate of knots, not only with loan words, but with Konglish and other crossbreeding, and how that’s enabled by a history that has left it with Chinese-derived words for well over 50% (estimates vary much higher) of its nouns, amongst other parts of speech.
    You know, I think the same thing that allows us to trace back bog-standard words like ‘sheep’ (well, ‘ewe’) or ‘brother’ or whatever all the way back to proto-IndoEuropean, because they’re continuous, constant things in all our lives (or were, for most of human agrarian history) will keep the language on an even keel with regard to the Big Stuff.
    And, as always, I reckon the Little Stuff will sort itself out.

  8. …especially if it’s RFID-tagged. ; . )

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