New vocabulary suggests innovation. This is a point that Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Long Now Foundation made at this year’s Devcon4 in Prague.
Large, slow moving, institutions are often worried about their own survival. What is the next big thing that could displace them? Will they be forced to dissipate? Or will a larger institution subsume them? As a consultant Brand gave advice to these large slow moving institutions. The advice? Look where there’s new terminology emerging:
With hackers, for example, there were a whole bunch of hacker terms that emerged. In fact there was a hacker’s dictionary that was carefully maintained because newcomers to that world would need to know what is this shorthand for. And I could well imagine that there should be, if there isn’t already, a blockchain dictionary — an Ethereum dictionary. You see it in new words: dApp, new word. You see it in words that are repurposed: wallet, fork, beacon… You see it in joke words, like HODL. That’s a sign to me that it’s not just for decoration.
New tools need new words to express what they do. “What I’m trying to do here [at Devcon4]” Brand said, “is learn some level of vocabulary. And with vocabulary you start to learn the system.”
Emerging new vocabularies, tools and meanings have historically sparked interest in the field of Philosophy of Science, which is concerned with the foundations, methods and implications of science. New terminology can sometimes coincide with new questions and practices, which can lead to paradigm shifts, as the late Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn famously argued in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
In a later book, The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays 1970–1993 (published in 2000), Kuhn elaborated. He understood that the central characteristic of scientific revolutions is that they alter the “knowledge of nature that is intrinsic to the language itself and that is thus prior to anything quite describable as description or generalization, scientific or everyday.” Violation or distortion of a previously unproblematic scientific language is the touchstone for revolutionary change, Kuhn proposed.
These features reach beyond innovation and the survival of institutions that Brand discussed above. To philosophers of science such as Kuhn, they go so far as shape how we describe nature. For example the German theoretical physicist Max Planck, who in 1918 won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of energy quanta, introduced new language and subsequently altered knowledge of the physical world. Kuhn observes:
To make the void or an infinite linear motion part of science required observation reports that could only be formulated by altering the language with which nature was described. Until those changes had occurred, language itself resisted the invention and introduction of the sought-after new theories. The same resistance by language is, I take it, the reason for Planck’s switch from ‘element’ and ‘resonator’ to ‘quantum’ and ‘oscillator’.
In the digital universe, Ethereum is building a new type of global super computer which will interact with and alter existing information and communications technology systems. Properties such as immutability (censorship resistance) and disintermediation (abstracting away aggregators of data and services from decentralized systems) have implications which are transdisciplinary by nature, reaching beyond the specialization of computer science and affecting areas of law, politics, economics and culture. There have been no shortage of hostile responses to this technology.
Does the new language, the new tools, meanings, questions, problems and practices that Ethereum raises together constitute a potential revolutionary change? “Revolutionary change,” Kuhn wrote, “is defined in part by its difference from normal change, and normal change … results in growth, accretion, cumulative addition to what was known before.” Revolutionary changes “cannot be accommodated within the concepts in use before they were made.”
While it may not be clear for some time if Ethereum represents a revolutionary change as Kuhn described it — particularly as it is undergoing an engineering overhaul with sharding and the development associated layer two technologies — its new vocabulary and paradigm may indicate an emerging “incommensurability”, a growing conceptual disparity between old and new specialties. In this case, specifically between centralized and decentralized systems.
For Kuhn, incommensurability occurred when two specialties have grown apart: “that disparity makes it impossible for the practitioners of one to communicate fully with the practitioners of the other. And those communication problems reduce, though they never altogether eliminate, the likelihood that the two will produce fertile offspring.”
In this situation, Kuhn suggests how a variety of niches within which the practitioners of these various specialties continue to practice their trade and eventually replace the dominant speciality:
Those niches, which both create and are created by the conceptual and instrumental tools with which their inhabitants practice upon them, are as solid, real, resistant to arbitrary change as the external world was once said to be. But, unlike the so-called external world, they are not independent of mind and culture, and they do not sum to a single coherent whole of which we and the practitioners of all the individual scientific specialties are inhabitants.
The emerging vocabulary of Ethereum — and the new promises, possibilities and problems this technology poses for societies — is still emerging. Will it mature to be a global paradigm and eventual technological revolution? Or will it split into niche communities spattered around the globe with equally niche use cases?