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Five words shaping our future

Guest Blogger

The modern technological blur we’re all living through produces new ideas and products constantly, and language trots along trying to keep up. In “Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology,” published this month by Oxford University Press, Jonathon Keats looks at the new words churned out on the road to the future and assesses their place in society. Will they succeed like the word "blog"? Or fail like the word "flog" (a fake blog for promotional purposes)? Here, Keats, who writes Wired Magazine’s Jargon Watch column, picks five words that not only have staying power but help us peer toward the horizon.

By Jonathon Keats

We tend to think of prophecy as the stuff of superstition. Yet just as people can influence the future with their predictions, words occasionally anticipate the reality they come to reflect. Here are five that are helping to define our technological society.

A resistor with electrical memory.

For three decades, the memristor existed only on paper. Proposed by the engineer Leon Chua in 1971 to fill a gap in the theory of electronics, the hypothetical component was nearly forgotten by the time researchers accidentally made one. They might easily have dismissed the discovery as an error in their data had one of them not dimly recollected Chua's strangely named idea. The memristor is now deemed the future of computer memory because of its odd behavior: The more electricity you run through it, the more its electrical resistance increases. In other words, the memristor remembers its own history.

Protection against copyright protection.

Like most '60s countercultural ideals, the free circulation of intellectual property was hopelessly unrealistic. Anybody could easily steal a collective project by taking out a copyright. For this reason, collaboratively designed open-source software didn't stand a chance until master hacker Richard Stallman counteracted copyright with copyleft. A copyleft license blocks profiteers from copyrighting collaborative software by preemptively copyright-protecting it, and contractually allowing people to freely use and modify it only if they agree to pass on the freedoms given to them. Copyleft does not only describe an ideal, but has made it real.

Outsourcing to the masses.

Several years ago a stock photography company called iStockphoto began letting amateurs post their pictures, getting paid a nominal fee whenever an image was used commercially. Around the same time, a VH1 show started broadcasting viewers' homemade videos. Both of these are examples of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Wired magazine writer Jeff Howe in an article about iStockphoto, VH1, and a couple other companies that derive their content from anyone with an internet connection. Since the article was published in 2006, crowdsourcing has become a media catchphrase used to describe everything from Wikipedia to online political polling. On the surface, these seem to have nothing in common. Evolving with the internet, crowdsourcing encourages us to search for hidden connections, and to discover how the structure of the web influences the workings of the world.

The current geological epoch.

The naming of geological epochs is typically descriptive. Eocene uses the Greek root for dawn, heralding the birth of modern mammals, and the root of holocene means wholly recent, referring to the epoch we've been in for the past 10,000 years. But what will future scientists make of the abrupt geological changes of the past several centuries, observing the strata of concrete and plastic? Many geologists argue that our permanent mark on the environment merits a new name, shaming the perpetrators. A scientific term with a political intent, anthropocene describes our catastrophic effect on the planet in order to mitigate it.

A simplified future world English.

An estimated 1.5 billion people speak English, fewer than a quarter of whom speak it as a first language. Most get by with simplified grammar and a vocabulary of a couple thousand words. Coined to identify this streamlined English, panglish has transformed the phenomenon into a topic of debate. Panglish has been vilified by English nativists afraid that their language is being gutted, and by lexical nationalists abroad terrified that panglish will sully local tongues. Yet few panglish speakers even know the word panglish. They have no need for it. Those who would decree the future of language might as well speak gibberish.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 13, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  tech language; future society; virtual words;  
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