Vocabulary Forensics, Digital Media, and Technological Change

I’ve created a new game, and while I’m sure only a few people will find it fun, I think the game illustrates a wider issue in preserving digital media and technological tools. The game, most simply put, is to guess the shelf-life of a word.

Slang comes in and out of style pretty frequently. People aren’t saying, “That’s haaawt,” the same way that there were in 2002 under Paris Hilton’s dubious influence. But technical language also falls in and out of use, based largely on the object and infrastructures which the vocabulary is tied to.

Let me illustrate with a quick example: “smartphone.” While the lexical construct of “smart – object” has retained a fair bit of influence with things like “smart-fridges,” the word “smartphone” may not be long for this world. When is the last time a Verizon commercial touted the amount of smartphones they offered? At this point, at least within a certain demographic, we just call them phones. The consumer-level technology has advanced in such a way that using the term “smartphone” is redundant. The internet-connected phone is no longer noteworthy; the flip-phone is.

In this way, the use of the word “smartphone” decreased as the market’s ability to provide that object increased.At least in the United States, smartphones are so ubiquitous that we have largely dropped the “smart” and are back to simply “phone.”

This observation is relatively simplistic. Of course language changes to reflect the lived, human environment, and technology is a key aspect of that environment. I am a little personally astounded by how quickly the word came into and fell out of use (a little over 10 years by my count), but this isn’t terribly interesting on its own. It does, however, illustrate an issue when undertaking a digital preservation project, particularly one that focuses on preserving software, like my current work at the National Library of Medicine. As I familiarize myself with obsolete technology, I also need to familiarize myself with obsolete language. Let’s just say that the word for “back-end” does not seem to be as stable as one may have assumed.

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