I love delving into the origins of new words—especially around technology. In a digital age, technology can feel like a natural order of things, arising for its own reasons. Yet every technology is embedded in a particular history and moment. For me, etymology emphasizes the contingency of things I might otherwise take for granted. Without a sense of these all-too-human stories, I’m unable to see our creations for what they really are: marvelous, imperfect extensions of human will, enmeshed within all manner of biases and unintended consequences.
I give talks about technology to teenagers, and often use Wikipedia as a prompt for discussion. Let’s find and improve an article to make Wikipedia better, I suggest, and in the process, think about what “better” means. My audience’s reaction is almost always the same. What do I mean by improving an article? Aren’t they all written by experts? No, I say. That’s the whole point of a wiki: The users themselves write it, which means no page is ever the last word. There are no final answers, and no ownership beyond the community itself.
Some contributors to Ward Cunningham’s original wiki are less than complimentary towards Wikipedia precisely because they see it betraying this intention. By virtue of its success, they argue, Wikipedia encourages an illusion of impartiality and permanence. Its pages can become “self-contained, self-appointed ‘truths’” that close down debate—or restrict it to a self-selected editorial caste.
A larger momentum lies behind such worries: the passage of time itself. None of my teenage audience remembers a time before Wikipedia, and Cunningham’s original website is older than every one of them. Like much of the software and hardware in their lives, Wikipedia is simply a part of the landscape—something people inhabit, adapting themselves to its contours.
Digital technology has an uneasy relationship with time. Old formats and platforms fall into disuse fast; newer is by definition better, faster, brighter. Yet decades-old decisions continue to have an influence. If, for example, you want to understand the design of a computer mouse, you need to dive back into a 1965 NASA paper exploring different possible control methods—including a kind of treadle moved with the knees, a "Grafacon" tablet and stylus, a light pen, a joystick. In doing this, you’ll find yourself transported to a time when it was by no means obvious how people might best interact with a computer, or even what interacting with a computer meant. Sample quote from the original paper: “Although the knee control was only primitively developed at the time it was tested, it ranked high in both speed and accuracy, and seems very promising.”
Who would imagine using their knees to control a computer today in parallel to typing, like working at an old-fashioned sewing machine? Tracing the thread of a word is a beautiful counterbalance to digital culture’s often-relentless obsession with the present, sketching how each iteration of software and hardware builds off older ideas and values. Tune into a wireless network, and you’re entering the same verbal space as the wireless telegraph—developed in the 1890s. Then as now, international agreements needed to be established for successful networking, together with regulation, licensing, and the aggressive assertion of trademarked standards. To communicate electronically is to participate in a vast, negotiated consensus, built and maintained on the basis of decades of accumulated assumptions.