The Language of the Future

If you’ve read my previous post on futurist stuff you’ll know that I recently attended a cryptocurrency and blockchain conference and heard futurist, Ray Hammond, talk about how our world may change over the next few decades. As an author, there was one statement Ray made that really jumped out at me.

“We don’t have the language we need to discuss the future of cryptocurrency.”

Although this was a cryptocurrency conference, this point wasn’t made just in the context of crypto: Ray was saying that we lack any kind of language for the future.

That’s a pretty big statement. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. As humans, we often try to understand the future by relating it to the present. We make sense of what could be based on our understanding of what is.

As an example, the term “movies” originated as slang for “moving pictures”. Tablets had been used as a means of recording information for thousands of years before they came to mean small portable computers. And as for laptops, well, I don’t think I need to labour the point…

The more unusual words in our language often originate from brands. Brand names can become so associated with a type of product that they end up being used in everyday language as a generic term for a whole range of products made by different companies. There are many terms that were originally trademarked but lost their legal protection due to becoming common nouns: aspirin, escalator, heroin and trampoline are just a few. A similar thing occurs when a word or phrase that’s used by a celebrity, or in a cult show, eventually becomes so commonplace that people forget where it originally came from. (An example of this is the term “Bye Felicia”.)

When it comes to creating new words to describe things we may not fully understand, our imagination falters.

And this, as Ray emphasised, can hinder our forward progress and the widespread adoption and understanding of the new technologies, concepts and systems we are creating. If we don’t have the language to describe these new creations, then we’re forced to talk about them in terms that relate to mainstream concepts, which then inevitably leads to the “new” being compared to, and seen through the lens of, our understanding of the “old”.

As authors, words are our business. Science fiction and fantasy authors can go one step further than most. We are given the privilege not just of creating visions of the future but creating the language that goes along with them.

There’s a long history of science fiction authors accurately predicting future events or technologies. Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in the 1800s. It only took another century for us to get there. Hugo Gernsback’s 1911 novel, Ralph 124c 41+, predicted solar power, radar, television and Skype. While reading Fahrenheit 451 recently, I was initially confused by the “seashell ear radios” until I realised that they were just headphones (or earbuds, depending on which language you use).

I would be the first to raise my hand and admit that my imagination sometimes fails when it comes to thinking up creative names for technologies and products of the future, and I am equally guilty of defaulting to words that describe the product in question. (As per the “moving pictures” example.) I believe this is partly down to the challenge of imagining something that is different to what we know, and the struggle of helping our readers visualise these products of our imagination, which must inevitably be contextualised in the language and products of the word today.

But this is on my list of things I need to improve. Because words are important – perhaps more so than we realise. If we need a new language to explain and understand technical innovation, then why shouldn’t authors help create this language?

So, let’s put some thought into the words we use to label and describe the worlds that exist in our novels. Because it may be that one day, these words can help future generations understand the world they’re living in.

The words we use to talk about the future may one day become the language of the present.

If you want to read more about the future Ray Hammond predicted, check out Part 1 of my look into the future.

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