Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Notional Space of the Digital World

If you take an interest in technology news you probably read headlines like the following ones every day, and as a speaker of English, you interpret them with your brain more or less on automatic pilot:

This annoying iPhone feature gets a fix in iOS 13

Does the rise of edge computing mean a security nightmare?

iCloud goes down: Apple joins the Google, Facebook, Cloudflare cloud outage club

Many of the events of the digital world unfold at scales vastly larger or smaller than we can experience directly with our senses, but we have to talk about them; in fact, they wouldn't happen at all but for our talking about them. So we adapt ordinary language to translate our understanding of what goes on digitally to the scale of human perceptibility, and that means playing fast and loose with metaphors on the thing that all of our senses assure us is "out there": space. Metaphors about space come at us so thick and fast in talking about the digital world that we don't even notice that they are there, and that's probably a good thing: it helps us to make sense of complicated phenomena.

To take the first headline above, involving a fix to the iPhone. What's a fix? Despite its many meanings, fix is only one word in English, the verb ancient, the noun a more modern (probably early 19th century) derivative. In American English the first meanings that come to mind for both parts of speech are synonyms of "repair," but the verb originally meant "make stationary" — a meaning that is more easily relatable to the noun fixture. Making something stationary implies space, because if a thing is stationary it's not moving; and what makes movement possible is… space!

How does fix "make stationary" become fix "repair"? Not overnight, but through a series of small extensions of meaning in which the change-of-state notion of the verb is preserved, but the idea of it happening in a defined space is gradually diminished. So over time, fix meaning "change from unmoored to moored state" comes to mean "change from not working to working state". Preserved throughout the evolution of meaning is the idea of "change from dispreferred state to preferred state".

The fix to the iPhone was probably a patch. What's a patch? A lot of things, as I wrote about here, and all of them have a spatial notion: an area that is relatively small yet definably extensive, and distinctive from what surrounds it. A software patch is that functioning bit of code (ultimately, just a sequence of characters) that replaces the formerly nonfunctioning bit of code. It's convenient to think of it as a patch, in the same way that a patch on fabric covers and mends a flaw in fabric; even if the computer working with the patch only deals with it as a string of 0s and 1s.

The second headline above gets into a space metaphor via use of the relatively new term edge computing. You know what an edge is, and you know that it's something you can't even begin to talk about without reference to spatial concepts such as limit, boundary, surface, or area. Edge computing is a way of bringing computation and data storage closer to the location where they are needed, so is it really a metaphor or just a literal use of edge? To answer that question, you might ask another: where is the edge of your computer network, or the edge of your company's computer network? Where does one network end and another begin? If speakers were really bound by a literal interpretation of edge, it wouldn't work very well in the context of network connections. The "space" that networks inhabit lives comfortably in our heads but would be quite a challenge to map to a physical space.

The third headline above is rife with references to space. First there's the idea of the cloud, an idea that's familiar to all of us now because we hear or talk about it every day. It wasn't always so, however, certainly not ten years ago when I first wrote about it here. It's handy and necessary for us to talk about the very complex phenomenon of storing computer data in dispersed locations that are unknown to us, but readily accessible via the internet. Calling this "place" the cloud borrows some suitable features of an actual cloud that pertain (remote from us yet perceptible, somehow "above" us, generally amorphous and highly mutable), while eliminating the features of an actual cloud that do not apply (composed of water vapor, capable of producing rain, ephemeral).

Where the headline says that the cloud "goes down" we do not imagine a movement in space; there's no notion that the cloud, from its lofty height, actually comes closer to us, because the metaphor in operation here, though borrowed from spatial words, has left the idea of space far behind. The metaphor of UP = OPERABLE/DOWN = INOPERABLE dates back more than a century and now we hardly think of it as a metaphor at all.

Perhaps the most successful and thoroughly ingrained metaphor of the digital world — and one that is required for even understanding how computers work — is the idea that memory exists in space and takes up space. Data on a storage device has addresses, which can also be called locations. We are all comfortable with this idea, even though if asked to we could not locate the place where a particular data point resided on a thumb drive any more than we could point out the groove on a vinyl record where a particular riff was encoded. So while we talk of these items as places, they are not places where we can actually go. We can, however, "send" something there — that is, a read or write mechanism, where it will "find" what we sent it after. The metaphors here, again, are extensions of how we imagine ourselves, our limbs, or our minions to move in space.

Fetch is a very old verb in English, from before the 12th century, and it may be related to the word foot. That makes sense, because when someone fetches something, they go from where they are now, pick something up at another location, and return with that thing. It’s a pretty basic activity, so basic that even animals (dogs, anyway), can learn to respond to the command "fetch". But fetch is also a command in various programming languages and environments (Java, SQL, Oracle, Git, Python, Linux, to name a few), where it means the same thing, on a much different scale: "go" to a particular memory location, "pick up" something there (a piece of data), and "bring it back".

We are, by the limitations and capacities of our sense organs, confined to a world where two things are existential givens: time and space. Our easiest way to understand space is with reference to how we move in it and perceive it in relation to ourselves. So when we want to expand our understanding of anything that does not easily fit into this inescapable aspect of our experience, we have to shoehorn the new concepts into the notions we already have, often using the words we already know.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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