Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unnamable relationships

You would think that there are plenty of names for the varieties of family relationships: mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, the inclusive "sibling", husband, wife, all the in-laws, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousins and first cousins and second cousins and first cousins once removed and double first cousins (and kissing cousins for the ones you can't remember the family tree for). But it turns out that there are vastly more relationships than we have names for.

What do you call the person you live with in a long-term relationship if you aren't married? Husband or wife implies marriage. Partner is common, but ambiguous due to its use in a lot of other fields. Lover and boyfriend carry connotations that may not be appropriate. Significant other is awkward. People in this situation are experimenting with lots of words, but none has risen to common usage yet.

What do I call my ex-husband's new wife, whom I like, when I am looking for a short-hand description of her position in my family? "My kids' stepmother" is  slightly better than "my ex-husband's wife", but not much. "Sister wife" was suggested; I like the implication of familial affection but not the hint of polygamy. I'm stumped on this one, and I know I'm not alone in having the relationship, if not the desire to name it without invective.

Ok, fine, cohabitation and divorce/remarriage are relatively recent phenomena, at least at the scale that calls for new words. But even traditional extended families are given short-shrift in names for relationships. In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, Stephen Pinker points out that there is no collective gender-neutral noun (like sibling) for the offspring of one's siblings (nieces and nephews, collectively), nor for the parents of the spouse of one's children. 

I guess the easiest solution is simple to call them all "kin", but that isn't very satisfying. With luck, the ever-inventive English language will find some new words soon.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Never Getting Lost Again: No Thanks

In an interview in The Atlantic, Michael Jones talks about some of the new ways digital maps affect our lives.
We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built. There’s an Android app we’ve released called Field Trip. You download it, and it says, “I don’t want to bother you, so how often should I talk to you?” You tell it “all the time” or “rarely” or whatever, and then you turn off your phone and put it in your pocket and don’t think about it again.

Then when you’re walking around, say in Washington, D.C., the phone will buzz and say, “You are 25 feet from an accurate map of 2,700 solar objects. If you go over there to the Einstein Memorial, you can see them.” Or you might be walking down the street and it will beep and say, “The rowhouse one block to the left is the No. 1–rated Greek restaurant within 500 miles,” or maybe: “Around the corner behind you is where a scene from your favorite movie was filmed.” It is using your location to search in a database of “interesting things,” and it learns what kinds of things you care about. It means having your life enlightened by travel knowledge, everywhere, or getting to walk around with local experts who know your tastes, wherever in the world you go.
We’ve already seen this transition in mobile maps. All those fears and anxieties in travel—what happens if I get lost someplace where I don’t speak the language? If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps, you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily. No human ever has to feel lost again.
Okay, fine--the best Greek restaurant in town is around the corner, but what about the little hole in the wall that serves some little-known, strictly local specialty that you run into when you make a wrong (or random) turn on your way back to your hotel? Half the fun of finding a neat restaurant is the sense of having discovered it for yourself, even if tons of other people have found first - and once in a while, you find it first, the day after it opens. Sometimes being lost is how you learn new things about an unfamiliar place, the things that make it your own. Local knowledge is great, but with an app like this, soon all you know is exactly what everyone else knows.

Admittedly, there are times when being lost is scary - ask those people who get lost in Death Valley because they listen to their GPS units. But an important part of competently navigating the world is knowing where you are, using experience and maps (of all sorts) to teach yourself about the places around you. When people consistently outsource that knowledge to their GPS units, they lose the ability to do it themselves. They lose the ability to stay on the main roads through Death Valley and end up stuck in the sand on a animal track. According to Daniel Gulati's blog on HBR,
Research shows that we're increasingly outsourcing our personal memory banks to Google and other search engines, effectively wiping our own brains of easily accessible information. But as the growth of apps per device skyrockets and user interfaces simplify, we're relying on more cognitive crutches than ever. Can't recall the name of your coworker? Don't worry; their LinkedIn profile is just a few taps away. Forgotten the name of that Japanese restaurant down the street? Yelp it up! Look for our memory gaps to grow as we train our brains to recall where information is located, rather than remembering the information itself.
Relying on electronic maps, GPS, and apps like Field Trip means being satisfied with data bites of what everyone else knows, rather than really knowing a place in our own head. It means never discovering a place for yourself, never using your skills to figure out how to get somewhere, never making connections between the known and the unknown. If we are never lost, we are never delighted to find our way again.