Sterling language

I loved the two Bloggercons I participated in, and I share the enthusiasm expressed by Dave Winer and the BarCamp people and the MashupCamp people for the whole “unconference” idea — the notion that great gatherings can happen when you put great people together in rooms without programming lots of speeches and panels and product demos.

Still, I’m not ready to give up on the occasional old-fashioned lecture, under the right circumstances, and there are some people in whose presence I will gladly say, “I am an audience member — you talk, I’ll shut up.” Bruce Sterling is one of them. He spoke tonight here at

I haven’t heard Sterling in several years, and I’d forgotten his peculiar cadence — a kind of incantatory precision that you first mistake for superciliousness and then realize, no, wait, those pauses and touches of drawl aren’t affectation, he’s just savoring those words, he loves them, he doesn’t want to say goodbye to them quite yet.

Sterling’s ostensible subject was “The Internet of Things,” and he talked a bit about the stuff he’s been talking about for some time now: spimes, physical objects trackable in space and time, material things that are — like items on today’s Web — linkable, rankable, sortable and searchable. It’s a fascinating topic, even the second or third time around; but the heart of tonight’s talk was a series of observations on language and technology.

“Computer,” Sterling argued, was simply an awful name for these machines that arrived in the middle of last century. “Computer” led us straight to “artificial intelligence,” down the dead-end street that had us thinking the machines could become smart — that they were “thinking machines.” We should have picked a word more like what the French chose, “Ordinateur,” suggesting that the devices, uh, ordinate things. They are card shuffling tools. They do what we see the Google-ized Web doing so well today — link, rank, sort and search. “I think we could have done better words,” Sterling said — and if we had, we might have gotten Google 20 years sooner.

He went on to parse some Web 2.0-speak, first decoding Tim O’Reilly’s definition of the phrase, then dissecting scholar Alan Liu‘s critique of the phenomenon, at every turn reminding this crowd of “alpha geeks” that the labels they pick for their innovations really do make a difference.

“You don’t want to freeze your language too early,” Sterling advised — that stops creativity in its tracks. Hype, he suggested, is underrated: “Hype is a system-call on your attention.” Buying into it blindly is a disaster, of course, but “if you soberly track its development, hype is revealing…. In politics, the opposite of hype is the truth, but in technology, the opposite of hype is argot, jargon” — language that has no traction in the real world. And “if no one is dismissing you as hype, you are not being loud enough.”

Sterling cited a recent interview with Adam Greenfield, the author of a new book called Everyware that’s also about a version of “the Internet of Things.” In the interview, Greenfield said he coined the term “Everyware” to describe his take on the concept others have labeled “ubiquitous computing” because “I wanted people relatively new to these ideas to be able to have a rough container for them, so they could be discussed without anyone getting bogged down in internecine definitional struggles.”

But wait, Sterling cried — “getting bogged down in internecine definitional struggles” is exactly where we should be when we’re inventing new things. This is “the wetlands of language”, where we “use words to figure out what things mean.” The struggles count; they help us understand and shape what we’re doing. Choosing a label for a technology, he argued, “really matters — it’s like christening a baby.”

There was much more. If the good folks at ITConversations post the audio, or if Sterling posts a text, I’ll link so you can experience the whole thing — including the full shtick about Alan Turing’s head in a box, which I’m afraid I failed to take good notes on, since I was too busy laughing.

It would take a good video, though, to capture the funniest moment of the evening: Sterling was displaying examples of “receding tech” (“things that do not blog or link”) — a rusty engine block half-buried in desert sand, a mountain of discarded tires — when the projection screen flashed a warning window: YOU ARE NOW RUNNING ON RESERVE POWER. Then the laptop went to sleep. He was wrapping up, anyway.

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