This article is a submission for the Techsaucier of the Year 2018, written by Gladys Ng.
What comes to mind when you think about technology? In today’s connected world of digital devices, most of us will probably turn to our mobile phones, laptops or other electronic gadgets. The futuristic among us might list up-and-coming developments such as invisible computers and universal translators. What is rarely surfaced, if at all, is how the word itself even came about in the first place. This would perhaps catch many of us by surprise – the first use of ‘technology’ has little relation to devices with glowing screens, or machines that help us manage our lives.
Photo: Paraic Morrissey's Blog
With most discussions around technology centered on its future, scrutinizing its classical meaning might seem quaint and even irrelevant. Or maybe not, for etymology can uncover startling new perspectives on phrases frequently thrown around in the world of technology. The history of words can often reveal ideas, nuances and meanings easily missed today. And in so doing, remind us of what was once thought important – which very often is and will still be so.
But let us first return to the word ‘technology’, or tech as we often refer to it. It has its origins in two Greek words: techne, which refers to art, skill or craft, and logos, which refers to the way(s) of persuading an audience with reason. All that might seem surprising at first glance, since tech has often been discussed in relation to algorithms, numbers and machines. Or maybe not, if we consider that skilling up for an ever-changing tech world requires more than just that. As Microsoft executives Brad Smith and Harry Shum assert in their newly-released book The Future Computed, expertise in digital skills and data science is insufficient – it must be paired with the social sciences and humanities. The critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that we can acquire from history, philosophy and related disciplines will be instrumental in navigating a world where computers are behaving more like humans. Current and aspiring tech professionals will do well to remember that.
Photo: Writing Technologies
Now consider the word ‘data’, which is all the rage these days. It is rooted in the Latin word datum, which refers to something that is given or due to be given. This invokes an image of an exchange system, seemingly a far cry from the numbers and spreadsheets that we are familiar with. Yet the billion-dollar data economy in our world today is just that – a huge and complex system of exchanges between networks and communities. And what powers this data economy is not just the wealth of information given, but also the trust that we have placed in it to carry out these exchanges responsibly. Certainly something for tech executives to keep in mind, amidst recent massive data breaches from the likes of Facebook, MyHeritage and Ticketmaster.
The word ‘algorithm’, another key buzzword these days, is also particularly illuminative. What we understand today as a sequence of instructions has its roots in ‘algorithmi’ – the Latinized name of eighth-century Persian scholar Muhammad Al-Khwārizmī. While Al-Khwārizmī is best known for his contributions to mathematics, he was also well-versed in astronomy, astrology and geography. Many of his ground-breaking treatises on mathematics were inspired by his observations in different yet interconnected aspects of the natural world: creation cycles, geographical features and planetary movements. The takeaway for us all is obvious – innovation and breakthroughs are multidisciplinary at heart, and require that we seek out, express and adopt diverse perspectives.
Photo: Spirit Pathways
And finally, the words ‘companies’ and ‘corporations’, for all of us are either working in, starting or have started one. The former is derived from the French word compaignie, meaning companionship, while the latter has its roots in the Latin word corpus, referring to a whole composed of united parts. Amidst discussions around earnings, key performance indicators and business cases, it is easy to forget that the places we spend much of our waking hours are fundamentally social structures and communities. All companies, small or large, ignore this at their own peril.
The history of language can sometimes seem or even be irrelevant in our world today. But very often it is not. For words are not developed without reason, and in the world of tech where developments happen around the clock, being reminded of reason is perhaps more important than ever. We would do well to remember this, as we talk about tech and other related fields, such as markets, business and innovation. Now, what do these words originally mean?
This is a guest post by Gladys Ng Kai Xin.