Hamburger as the symbol of modern IT terminology

As anybody knows, this American dish of non-American origin is named after Hamburger Frikadelle which means (minced meat) patty from Hamburg. And because Americans are known for their deep knowledge of other languages somebody decided that the first syllable is a separate word so the words like cheeseburger and simply burger were born (you can call it the American wasei-eigo if you like). Anyway, the same process of maiming words and giving them new meaning happens in IT as well, irritating those few who still remember the original word and its meaning.

Let’s start with the word for governance or steering a ship, or as it was borrowed from the Greek language, cybernetics. Initially Greek philosophers thought about it as the discipline concerning exactly governance of the state and such. Later in XXth century it became a discipline about managing various systems. That involved computers (for automatising the control processes and such) and later cybernetics became associated with computers a lot. And even later there was a divorce where the word started to mean just the abstract governance/management/control systems and their structure and computer-related stuff was called information technology. But unfortunately around 2000 the word was picked up by marketers and cyber- prefix was used to name anything related to computers, the more bullshit the better.

A similar story happened to another Greek word meaning secret writings—cryptography. Initially it meant just encoding the messages (and breaking the code) but with the developments by Claude Shannon (who is responsible for advancing cybernetics as well; and juggling but who remembers that?) and others there were a lot of loosely-related things added including cryptographic hash functions that are not used to encode messages by themselves (normally) but can be used to check its integrity. And then you use those to build some kind of electronic money and now that thing gets indirect association with the original word by abusing the prefix crypto- for all bullshit loosely related to something using cryptographic hash algorithms for authenticating transactions.

Speaking of the word algorithm… As you remember it got the modern shape by modifying the Latin transcription of the al-Khwarizmi name to sound more like Greek one (and related to numbers). Initially it was related to his ways of performing arithmetical operations (back in the day people had hard times counting, and fractions were considered to be the ultimate problem that got into proverbs). Again, in XXth century the word expanded its meaning to mean the (every word matters in this definition!) clearly defined set of operations that reach the goal in finite time. In other words Feyman algorithm is not really one because the operations are not clearly defined. Or bogosort since it might never terminate either. Or doing the thing with one intent and obtaining the end result not related to it at all—and what is called by algorithms nowadays.

By that I mean various decisions that are made on different sites (social networks and video hosting are the best known examples) without (presumably) human involvement that may result in your content being rejected, tagged with some flags or your account being banned. Despite people calling those things “algorithms” in reality the only thing it has in common with real algorithms is that it does whatever it does in finite time (probably). Clearly defined set of operations? No, those decision use AI or neural networks or machine learning or whatever is the current term for misapplied statistics is in trend now. You cannot verify the result, you cannot re-trace it to see where it went wrong, I’m pretty sure you can’t even get the reasoning why it produced the decision it produced and not some other one. The same is for achieving the goal. The scandals even with famous users getting banned for no apparent reason (and later the ban lifted by human staff) are very frequent, for less popular users it may be even worse but who cares about them beside themselves. The systems that flag white noise as copyrighted material do not look that convincing either. Probably the only case where it looks like an algorithm is really working is P*yp*l where algorithm works by selecting a random account (preferably with money) and generating a random excuse to block it in order to get an additional revenue (or operational funds at least) from those money and create a pretence that it’s always a random mistake and not a strategy (at least it looks like that from all the scandals around it).

I hope this three examples demonstrated why some people cringe seeing certain kind of modern term that actually is a maimed old word re-purposed for a new meaning. But have no worries, we’ll die out eventually though those words might go out of fashion even earlier. In either case do nothing and the time will resolve it.

One Response to “Hamburger as the symbol of modern IT terminology”

  1. Peter says:

    Fortunately, nobody is foolish enough to confuse important language primitives, like REAL and FAKE.

    A friend once asked why do I put a bitcoin address in the signature block my email.