More Words for Tech

One of my favorite German words is fingerspitzengefühl. There’s no easy English translation, but it loosely equates to “feeling in the tips of the fingers,” or an innate sense of how to do something after years of practice.

The German language is fungible. It’s easy to smash together words and make another, longer, more nuanced one. NPR reported recently that the Pandemic has birthed more than 1,200 new words. A facemask might be a Mundschutzmode: “Mund” for mouth, “Schutz” for protection, and “Mode” for fashion. There’s also Gesichtskondom (a “face condom”), Behelfsmundnasenschutz (an “improvised mouth nose protection”) and Maulkorb (“muzzle,” which connotes submission to authority.)

Another of my favorite German words is doppelgänger (a “double walker”.) By now, a significant chunk of humanity has a digital doppelgänger in which we invest hours every day, whether we’re doomscrolling, messaging, updating playlists, tweaking our profile, or connecting with distant friends.

Technology permeates every facet of modern life. But we still have one word for tech. At the very least, we should recognize that our digital twin has both muscles and neurons.

There’s automation tech—robots and self-driving cars—which has far-ranging consequences for the future of physical labor. For example, mining can be done by machines, keeping humans from harm, with a massive impact on the livelihood of workers.

And then there’s cognitive tech—search, cloud storage, algorithmic assistance, and more. When a computer corrects our spelling, or suggests a route in Maps, it’s augmenting our brains. Prosthetics for thinking are nothing new, and have existed since well before we put pen to paper to remember something, but today they’re nearly free and instantly collaborative. Cognitive tech poses new challenges to privacy, influence, intellectual property, and how we make decisions.

To be sure, there’s no clear line between automation and cognition. Just as your eye is a physical organ that informs your cognition, so an Alexa smart speaker is a sensor that spans automation and cognition. But we do ourselves a disservice when we lump all of these things into “technology.”

We can classify tech according to its physicality, and whether its functions are collective/public or individual/internal. But classify them we must—there’s no one-size-fits-all regulation of technology, and each tech has vastly different benefits and drawbacks.

Maybe we should ask the Germans.