When William Gladstone, a four-times Prime Minister of Britain in the 19th Century and, as it might be judged now, overall pedant, decided to count the occurrences of different colours in Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, he made a striking discovery. There’s no mention of the colour Blue anywhere in the over 28,000 verses of the combined works. Instead, objects that are traditionally thought of as blue are referred to as dark shades of colours close in wavelength.
An experiment with tribal populations in Africa sought to find out what people see when they have no word for the colour Blue. It turns out that it is indistinguishable from similar colours.
Both of these stories appeared in an episode of RadioLab that aired earlier this year, and serve as a powerful reminder of how the words we have and use influence and determine our thinking about the world.
In preparation for on of my latest talks about the Internet of Things I was stumbling about this. The theme of my talk was to be “Social Objects”1, and for me it was quite clear that this means something different than the classical interpretations of the Internet of Things. Because our current models of thinking about the Internet of Things are anything but “social”.
For me — and I think I was quite clear about this in the panel after my talk — the Internet of Things signifies a kind of 1992 moment. Massive improvements of wildly divergent strands of technology come together and form something categorically new. However, we’re not really equipped to cope with the new, and hence we package it in terms of what we already understand.
Take for instance this amazing ad of the X10 Powerhouse, a home-automation system, published in 1985 and written for the C64.2
I find this ad so endearing, not because it shows how far the thinking in the 80s already was, but because it showcases that our thinking around networked objects and the instrumentation of the world fundamentally hasn’t changed in the last 30 years.
Metaphors are how the brain ‘sees,’ and thus when we lack metaphors for the ___ [future/present/data/wisdom] in front of us, it is invisible. — @kylecameron
That’s the reason why I’m so keen to see what happens in our world right now in analogy to 1992. When the Web was developed, the only way we could understand it was in terms of a better document access and retrieval system, much like the early home- and personal computers were understood as better typewriters and calculators. It took an enormous effort of testing out the possibilities of the new technological tools. Tinkering and building and building and exploring were fundamental in bringing the web to where it is today. But even more important was the sense of community and the sharing of the findings of exploration, as this necessitated the building of a shared vocabulary, of commonly understood metaphors, which spread out. And with each accepted metaphor, the groundwork for further exploration was laid.
To define the future, we have to shape the language, the terminology, the concepts, the metaphors with which we talk about the future. If we have no metaphors for the future, it might as well not exist. That’s why we’re confounded by the lack of Capital-F Future. The ideas that usually resided under the umbrella of Capital-F Future nowadays smack of 80ies retro-futurism.
We’re only slowly coming to terms with the world of networked thought, we’re only slowly building the corpus of metaphors to cope with pocket computers that, for acceptance’s sake we still call phones, and the opening up of knowledge. However, if we want to build the future of connected devices, of a meaningful, open Internet of Things, we need to tinker and explore, and share the results of our explorations, in the hopes of building a shared language, a body of metaphors, to shape the future.
The notion that the Future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, does ultimately not only refer to the technology we have at hand, but firmly asserts itself in the language we use.