Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology

Synopsis

The technological realm provides an unusually active laboratory not only for new ideas and products but also for the remarkable linguistic innovations that accompany and describe them. How else would words like qubit (a unit of quantum information), crowdsourcing (outsourcing to the masses), or in vitro meat (chicken and beef grown in an industrial vat) enter our language? In Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology, Jonathon Keats, author of Wired Magazine's monthly Jargon Watch column, investigates the interplay between words and ideas in our fast-paced tech-driven use-it-or-lose-it society. In 28 illuminating short essays, Keats examines how such words get coined, what relationship they have to their subject matter, and why some, like blog, succeed while others, like flog, fail. Divided into broad categories--such as commentary, promotion, and slang, in addition to scientific and technological neologisms--chapters each consider one exemplary word, its definition, origin, context, and significance. Examples range from microbiome (the collective genome of all microbes hosted by the human body) and unparticle (a form of matter lacking definite mass) to gene foundry (a laboratory where artificial life forms are assembled) and singularity (a hypothetical future moment when technology transforms the whole universe into a sentient supercomputer). Together these words provide not only a survey of technological invention and its consequences, but also a fascinating glimpse of novel language as it comes into being. No one knows this emerging lexical terrain better than Jonathon Keats. In writing that is as inventive and engaging as the language it describes, Virtual Words offers endless delights for word-lovers, technophiles, and anyone intrigued by the essential human obsession with naming.

Excerpt

We live in an age of specialization. Perhaps in no sector are the constraints greater than within the sciences, where serious research in fields from molecular genetics to quantum mechanics depends on postdoctorate expertise. No longer is new knowledge casually acquired. There are no more gentlemenscientists. There are no more natural philosophers.

I became a writer because my interests were too broad to abide specialized study. Writing is a general-purpose tool. Although English lacks the scientific rigor of tensor calculus and the technological vigor of assembly language, there is the advantage that prose communicates across disciplines. Writers are the envoys of modern society, and we are constrained only by the limits of our own curiosity.

At Wired magazine, where I write the monthly Jargon Watch column, my curiosity is focused on words. As an avowed generalist committed to surveying science and technology in the broadest sense, I cannot think of a more felicitous beat. The new language produced by a discipline provides a good indication of what that field considers fresh and important. (In this book examples of novel concepts include microbiome and qubit.) There’s still more to be learned by examining how the language is formulated. (Again to cite examples from this book, consider the metaphoric motivations underlying gene foundry, or the case being made by crowdsourcing) And given that language can . . .

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