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Virtual WordsServing up the bacn and wOOt

In an amusing and penetrating study of the development of language in technology and science, Jonathon Keats looks at how new words originate, emerge into the world, and develop. Peter Arkell reviews Language on the edge of Science and Technology.

Keats asks how new words (neologisms) are invented, and accepted across the population. Does the new word itself lead to a new thought or is it a new thought that throws up the necessity for a new word – or is it both? Does a word die if the idea behind it is superseded? How, in other words, does language impact on thought and vice versa?

“Ideas inspire words,” Keats writes, “which inform ideas ad infinitum. In technology this kind of process is known as bootstrapping, and the word is apt, perhaps more appropriate than co-evolution, because language is a technology, arguably our first, possibly our most resilient, developing with us as a species and facilitating all other technological advances from agriculture to the internet. The language of technology and science illuminates the science and technology of language.”

This description rather misses out the relationship that the idea (or concept) being named, must have to the world beyond thought. Human beings developing science and technology are engaged in a practice, where their physical actions in the world and the ideas (concepts) in their heads, are continuously interacting – one is negated into the other. This continuous process of negation was and is the driving force behind the development of language.

The words and phrases examined in the book range from those that are well known such as Tweet, The Cloud, Crowdsourcing, Spam and the Great Firewall (the Chinese internet), to those that can be worked out or guessed at such as Mashup, In vitro meat and Gene Foundry. There are more obscure new words such as w00t, memristor, bacn, steampunk and quibit. All of them represent a concept or line of thought that is revealed to be necessary or exciting for further understanding, at least for a time. Most have arisen within the computing and technical world, where new knowledge and the potential developments arising from it are constantly revealing themselves, but Keats also takes a glance at neologisms outside science. He even writes a whole chapter on Panglish (a simplified future world English) and another on Exopolitics (foreign affairs with alien races).

There is enough of general interest connected both to the history of the internet and of language, to make this a literary gem for language lovers. For example, in his examination of the history of the word Copyleft, described as “protection against copyright protection”, the author narrates the story of the development of the free software movement. Faced with the problem that people could copyright their own “improved” versions of his free GNU software, Richard Stallman devised the GNU Emacs General Public Licence. This effectively by-passed copyright law by stipulating that “GNU software was free to distribute, and that any aspect of it could be freely modified except the licence which would mandatorily carry over to any future version, ad infinitum, ensuring that GNU software would always be free to download and improve”. 

This licence is now widely used as a model for free and open source software, and Keats argues it had a greater impact on the future of computing than even the software it set out to protect. The traditional beneficiaries of copyright protection were, “unamused” because Copyleft helps liberate people from the clutches of the large software companies.

In explaining the origin of the word Twitter (originally called Status and then Twitch) and the even cuter tweet, Keats relates the moment when Twitter came close to “alientating its tweeps” entirely. The company resorted to the law to try to enforce a trademark on the word tweet. Ordinary users had no interest in whether tweet was trademarked or not, “but felt emotionally violated when reminded that Twitter was not communal property and that there was a corporate entity behind the cute birdie interface”.

In the chapters on the Gene Foundry and on Singularity, Keats turns visionary and takes a peek at the brave new world of future technologies. Synthetic biology or bio-engineering will provide the means to fabricate new organisms from non-living materials. “After all,” he writes, “radical as artificial life may be philosophically – and significant as it may be environmentally – it`s technically just a strenuous construction project, with manufacturing challenges akin to building a bridge or a steam engine.”

There is already a “Registry of Standard Biological Parts”, which lists thousands of “biobricks” defined as components “that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems”. Keats quotes Freeman Dyson, one of the promoters of synthetic biology: “The domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next 50 years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives in the previous 50 years.”  This conjures up a world where “inefficient Darwinian evolution will be replaced by a sort of interspecies open-source mashup”, Keats suggests.

It is terrifying to think of today’s governments and big corporations controlling these processes. Let’s hope they have all been “plutoed” by the time they are economically profitable.

13 May 2011

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology by Jonathon Keats. OUP. £14.50.

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