A vocabulary of discovery

Was there ever a field of study like elec­tric­i­ty, that came into being so sud­den­ly as to require an entire vocab­u­lary to be invent­ed at once, and so cre­at­ing it from the names of its dis­cov­er­ers?

The most recog­nis­able names include André-Marie Ampère, Michael Fara­day, Lui­gi Gal­vani, Hein­rich Rudolf Hertz, James Prescott Joule, Georg Simon Ohm, Alessan­dro Vol­ta, and James Watt. But look at Wikipedia’s list of sci­en­tif­ic units named after peo­ple—so many are in the field of elec­tric­i­ty and mag­net­ism.

Per­haps there are oth­er fields that have seen a sim­i­lar com­ing into being of a whole vocab­u­lary; if so, I can’t imme­di­ate­ly think of them.

Warren Ellis on the future as weather

To be absolute­ly clear upfront, I didn’t write the fol­low­ing post. War­ren Ellis did. It’s a text com­pan­ion piece to the How The Light Gets In fes­ti­val, and was sent in the lat­est edi­tion of his newslet­ter, Orbital Oper­a­tions. I found it to be such a qui­et­ly won­der­ful and impres­sive piece that I decid­ed to reprint it here, with­out his per­mis­sion.


Think­ing about the future isn’t rock­et sci­ence, and nei­ther is it archery.  Time’s Arrow is a seduc­tive idea. The notion that time trav­els in a straight line, and that we rise into a sin­gle future. Or, if you’re feel­ing oppressed and cranky, that the future is a sin­gle cut­ting head div­ing down towards us. It sim­pli­fies things nice­ly, and makes pas­sen­gers of us. It is con­ve­nient and some­times com­fort­ing to believe we have no agency in the face of Time’s Arrow. The Future is com­ing and we’re trapped on the ride.

I stopped believ­ing, a long time ago, that the future works in that way, no mat­ter how many rock­et sci­en­tists you throw at it.

It works like The Great Storm of 1987. If you weren’t in it, your friends and par­ents will have talked about it. I lived by the water’s edge on the estu­ary at the time, and woke up to a two-foot drift of sand piled against my front door. Walk­ing to work was the full Walk­ing Dead expe­ri­ence: total­ly alone, walk­ing up the mid­dle of the road through the debris and the shat­tered glass, the only real dif­fer­ence between that and a zom­bie show being the ancient trees lay­ing across dual car­riage­ways and stick­ing out of hous­es. You’d think that, as a bloody great 122mph mete­o­ro­log­i­cal con­vul­sion that killed twen­ty-odd peo­ple and caused two bil­lion pounds’ worth of dam­age, a Great Storm would be an unmiss­ably large piece of the future smack dab in the mid­dle of Time’s Arrow’s path. But no. The pro­jec­tions were off. Pre­dic­tion will always get you into trou­ble, as any­one who ever talked about fly­ing cars will tell you.

Liv­ing on the estu­ary, I have a dif­fer­ent sense of the future. I watch weath­er sys­tems bounce around all over the estu­ary. The path of any one of them is deter­mined by a dozen dif­fer­ent ele­ments inter­act­ing and col­lid­ing. Out here on the water, you under­stand how mete­o­rol­o­gy is a night­mare dis­ci­pline. Look at America’s recent expe­ri­ence with the “win­ter weath­er bomb” that was on course to destroy the East Coast, until it kind of didn’t. Part of that is down to the hyper­bole that accom­pa­nies pre­dic­tion. Part of it is down to the nature of sin­gle pre­dic­tion, the stuff of futur­ism, itself.

From this per­spec­tive, the Great Storm was the mobile phone. It could be seen in the dis­tance, along with a dozen oth­er swirls of stormy weath­er, but we had no idea it would hit hard enough to change the shape of the world. It hit hard enough to break sci­ence fic­tion, one of our tra­di­tion­al ear­ly-warn­ing sta­tions, and it became inter­po­lat­ed into and inter­ro­gat­ed by con­tem­po­rary and pop­u­lar fic­tion with­out sci­ence fic­tion ever get­ting to lay a fin­ger on it. “Gene-edit­ing,” as a phrase, has bro­ken into the world with­out a sci­ence-fic­tion­al gen­e­sis. This will keep hap­pen­ing if we keep believ­ing we’re on a sin­gle rail to the future and that sin­gle pre­dic­tion is the way to see ahead.

The future is a weath­er­front, and attempt­ing to pre­dict sin­gle light­ning strikes is stu­pid and waste­ful. Under­stand the future as weath­er, and your­self as stand­ing on the shore look­ing out to the hori­zon. Breathe the air and watch the water. There are dozens of dif­fer­ent sys­tems act­ing on the approach of the future. In order to get a han­dle on what’s com­ing, you need to be talk­ing to and work­ing with and keep­ing an eye on many dif­fer­ent fields. Not just “tech­nol­o­gy.” The future is also always social, and eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal, and many oth­er things besides, and those things act on the path of the storm. And, if you’re stand­ing on the shore, you know that there are a lot of storms out there, and any one of them could hit like a hur­ri­cane. If this sounds good to you, then, please, get to it. Because we’re run­ning out of reli­able ear­ly-warn­ing sta­tions.

The internet vernacular

I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by this micro-trend of video that repli­cates the expe­ri­ence of using mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion soft­ware, espe­cial­ly mes­sag­ing and social media. For exam­ple, this music video by the Japan­ese artist, Aimy­ong, which takes place almost exclu­sive­ly in Line mes­sen­ger:

And the video for the song Run and Run by the Japan­ese girl band, lyri­cal school, has tak­en the idea even fur­ther, play­ing with the whole iPhone inter­face. More than that, it’s for­mat­ted for mobile, so looks bril­liant when viewed full screen on your phone.

This idea isn’t exclu­sive to music videos. The BBC Media Action team recent­ly released Your Phone is Now a Refugee’s Phone, a short film show­ing the impor­tance of the smart­phone to the mod­ern refugee. It’s edu­ca­tion­al and empa­thet­ic.

A short film from 2013, Noah is a roman­tic dra­ma that’s set on desk­top and mobile, and uses not only the lan­guage of inter­net comms, but also its effects — the para­noia that Face­book can bring to rela­tion­ships (NB this film is NSFW).

And the 2015 film Unfriend­ed car­ries the con­ceit even fur­ther; it’s a full-length hor­ror sto­ry that takes place on a sin­gle desk­top across Skype, mes­sag­ing, and the web brows­er, with a sto­ry that’s drawn from real online life.

These videos could not have been made ten years ago; they rely on a shared knowl­edge of tech­nol­o­gy (and the smart­phone espe­cial­ly) that’s only been com­mon since around 2008. They use the dialect of the glob­alised online pop­u­la­tion: the inter­net ver­nac­u­lar.

I’d love you to send me more exam­ples if you know of any.