As Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley pointed out in his PandoMonthly talk, the smartest consumer tech companies let their product strategy be guided by the unexpected usage patterns of their users. For instance, Twitter’s original product didn’t include @replies and retweets, but as they started seeing those behaviors adopted organically, they built features to support them. This is good for the users because it is an acknowledgment of their importance, and it also validates them, letting them know that what they are doing with the product is O.K. It is good for the company because it precipitates an evolutionary product cycle that will ultimately result in greater usage, greater customer satisfaction and the heartfelt loyalty of early adopters. It’s a beautiful thing when the product and the customer base co-evolve to their mutual benefit. (It brings to mind the way flowers and pollinating insects co-evolved millions of years ago.)
Moving from the biological to the cultural, this process of co-evolution can also be seen as analogous to the development of language. Linguistics–and history–have shown that as people take shortcuts in language and create apostrophized phrases and idiomatic expressions, the language spoken in a place changes over time. Thus Latin became the commonly spoken volgare, which became Italian. Similarly, proper British English was slowly molded like so much sandstone exposed to the elements into what is spoken today in the US. Appropriate thanks here are due to Mark Twain and his milestone opus Huckleberry Finn, defiantly written in the vernacular and the uptight upper crust be damned.
So why should we care how language evolves? No matter your religious bent, or lack thereof, Genesis in the Bible is still in many ways one of the foundational seeds of our cultural heritage in the US and can be studied for its literary value. In the proverbial “beginning,” words mattered because uttered words became matter. God spoke, and said, “Let there be trees and plants and tall grasses,” and there were. When he said, “Let there be light,” there it was.
And words can still have a strong connection to the world. How many phenomenal scientific discoveries and technological innovations have been realized thanks to the words written by science fiction authors? The wonderful site technovelgy.com will show you hundreds of these examples. Giving a concept form, structure and identity through naming it is extremely powerful. (So be careful what you give a name to.)
Yet in the world of augmented reality, we have always struggled with names and the rigid (or not so rigid) boundaries that can accompany them. What used to be known as mixed reality in academic laboratories is now known amongst industry insiders as the somewhat ambiguous “AR.” We talk about vision-based augmented reality, which is sometimes called contact analogue display technology in Germany. But we also use mnemonic devices in language to help us remember complex concepts in just a few succinct syllables, so at daqri, “augmented reality” has become 4D. In a recent post on augmented reality and books that mentioned our work, the author referenced the “fourth dimensional”–and registered her awe and delight in the experience–so maybe this phrase is finally catching on.
All we can do–and emphatically shall do–is continue to pay attention to the usage patterns (and linguistic turns of phrase) around us and direct our efforts toward being deft enough to co-evolve.