A research team led by Mark Pagel at the University of Reading in England has identified 23 “ultraconserved words” that have remained largely unchanged for 15,000 years. ∞
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
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
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.