Not so long ago I finished reading Tom Chatfield’s book Netymology. A great informative book and I’ve been wanting to write something down about it.
It’s a book that could be a resource (if someone so needs it to be) for the aspiring quiz master (“When was the initialism OMG first recorded?”)*. It also does something more interesting (sorry would be quiz masters): in identifying the providence of the words used to describe some of our current technology / platforms / digital tools, it situates them in a historical context; when historically situated their beginnings are identified; and when their beginnings are identified, we are reminded that these platforms, these tools, these technologies are man-made, and not sprung fully formed from the earth.
This reminder is important I think. And why it’s important is perhaps hinted at by Dr. Barbara Hahn in an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human (more of which in a moment), the episode ‘Sublime’:
Technology is something that is above all made by humans, and yet it seems to disguise itself […] its origins; the banks of servers, the blinking lights; they seem to be outside of human control and command […] it removes the makers and their goals, and I think that they benefit when the technology is presented in terms that hides it origins; and so the imagery it conveys is intended to startle us and create that sense of wonderment and dread, but this means that we’re supposed to give up control and give up recognising it has human purposes, and business purposes.
In its own understated way Netymology pulls back that disguise.
Chatfield’s approach to writing about technology (I also whole heartedly recommend his book How To Thrive In the Digital Age) occupies, for me, a similar area in which Aleks Krotoski (the presenter of the aforementioned Digital Human, its new season broadcasting now) works. In what they do there is always an explicit balance (which they try hard to make explicit you feel) between presenting technology as something that has the capacity to amaze and do many good things, but also as something that can, and should, be critiqued because it is not infallible. It’s praise to them as writers and broadcasters that they open up a wider world of technology writing, but such a world in which you return to them, because what they do is done so well.
* In a 1917 letter from a British Admiral to Winston Churchill.