Paul McFedries on “Bitcoinages.”

{Note:  This post was published on December 3, 2015. Due to a technical error, it was accidentally posted with a date of November 3.  Ooops. A duplicate appears with the intended December publication date.}

Paul McFedries comments on the developing terminology surrounding cryptocurrencies, which he calls  “Bitcoinages.” Whatever cryptocurrency technology may be or may ultimately mean, it “is generating new words and phrases at an inflationary rate” and has come to the notice of lexicographers and English majors.

Putting on my Anthropologist hat (which might be a weathered bush hat, no?), I’d say this is normal. Cryptocurrency is both new and also an intensely community oriented phenomenon, so it stands to reason that we’ll create new words for these ideas.

Putting on my technologist hat (which must be virtual, because, actually, we don’t wear hats), I’ll say that it is totally normal and necessary to create new terminology as we figure out new tech. Generally speaking, hunt for the new words, because that will be where the cutting edge is (or was six months ago).

McFedries correctly notes that the new terms surrounding cryptocurrencies are still confused and unsettled. Partly, as he says, no one knows what it really is. Money? Commodity? Information protocol? It’s all of those things at the same time.

He calls out the important term “trustless”, though he does not point out how this particular “bitcoinage” subverts the literal meaning of the term. He also misses the amazingly important dichotomy, “centralized/decentralized”. Everything “centralized” is “bad” (and vice versa), and “decentralized” is “good”. These terms are almost Orwellian in their level of ideological slant.

McFedries recognizes the importance of scripture, in the form of the Nakamoto Document, though much of the nomenclature is found in this Ur-document. He does not consider other questions of origin (much of the terminilogy comes out of Libertarian scripture), or of the fascinating rhetoric surrounding alt coins. Technically nearly identical, each alt coin is said to be “just as good as” or even “better than” the great patriarch, Bitcoin.  All the cryptochildren are above average.

By the way, reference to scripture plays an interesting role in many of the nominally technical debates surrounding cryptocurrency. Considering the trade offs of alternative technical developments often leads to claims that one or the other is truer to the original vision in the Nakamoto Document.  That such arguments are considered germane, let alone possible persuasive, indicates that this is not a technical project, but a sociotechnical and cultural project.

I think McFedries pays too much heed to the cryptocurrency literature when he ponders whether “As Bitcoin slouches toward the mainstream, it has generated a lot of new words, but will it generate enough users to supplant our current system”. This inevitably leads to comparisons to other fashionable technologies including PCs, Facebook, and SecondLife.

Here he is ignorant. There are zillions of new words generated in sociotechnical arenas, because every new technology gets new terms. (Plus, commercial companies invent their own “brand names” that add to the mix.)  This has little to do with the eventual uptake and dissemination of the technology. It is driven by the need to talk about new concepts.

However, the fact that English majors have heard these terms now (and mostly understand them correctly) indicates that Bitcoin is, in a certain sense, already “mainstream”.  That, of course, does not mean that any of the dreams of its proponents will come true.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

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