Sunday, March 4, 2012

Language Can’t Keep Pace with Technology

I once saw a cartoon of a guy holding a hammer walking away from a demolished computer. The caption read, “The server is down but I’m feeling much better.” There oughta be a word for the specific type of anger and frustration one feels when the computer won’t act right.

My lovely husband Ron the computer technician sent me an interesting quote this past week from the beginning of a technical manual about databases. The author was bemoaning the fact that we have only one word for database and that it would be so much more efficient if the English language contained more descriptive terms to describe different databases. For instance, he said we need a word for a home database of friends and family and a different word for a database in which we are storing a CD collection. Yet another word would be needed for a large-scale database used by a business. The author likens this to the fact that Eskimos don’t have one word that means “snow” but instead fifty or sixty different words for “snow” and each one refers to a different type of snow. The geek who authored the technical manual would like to have multiple words for “database,” each one defining the exact type of database in question.

This set me thinking about the fact that our technology is moving at warp speed and we lack the language to communicate effectively about many aspects of our lives in the technological age. I find myself saying “when I spoke to him yesterday,” when in fact I never actually spoke to him. He sent me a message on Facebook. We communicated, as if we spoke, but he “Facebook messaged me.” When I research something on the Internet, I say that I “googled” it, whether or not I actually put it into Google and looked for it with that search engine. If I tell people to fax me something, they sometimes fax it to my phone number and it doesn’t reach me because I have an e-fax service (the fax number is on the signature in all my emails) that sends faxes to me via email as a PDF. So when I say “fax it to me,” I mean fax it to my e-fax service and I won’t actually get a hard copy, I’ll get an electronic copy that I can print. That’s so complicated. You probably stopped reading this by now. Not my usual spiritually charged ruminations on life, huh?

I am at heart a student of English and, as such, language continues to fascinate me. Language is a tool that assists the brain in processing the world. I have to wonder if our inventions are outpacing our ability to talk about them.

Imagine trying to comprehend what the Internet was before it came into common usage? What language could possibly be used to describe what the Internet was and what it could potentially do back in the 1990s? This YouTube video was going around Facebook a few months ago. Here it is again. These people in this video (which is not actually a video at all but that's what we call it and so I rest my case) have no idea what the Internet is. And who can blame them? At that time, there was really no language to talk about it.

1 comment:

Bond said...

In the words of Edward Tufte, "There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users!"
Or something to that effect.

I personally like the simplicity of a single word "database", knowing that it refers to only the items I'm interested in manipulating. But thats just me!