BLOG POST: Naming – Chris Davies

Chris-Davies-profile-232x300Douglas Rushkoff, a new media guru, coined the term screenagers back in the 1990s. It is a truly horrendous neologism, a real stinker, which amazingly found its way into the OED (check the online version). It was an early shot at the notion which later worked only too well when Prensky came up with “digital native”, giving apparent substance to the science fiction fantasy that digital technologies have somehow short-circuited evolution and transformed young people into a new species, on the basis of their capacity to play Doom and download illegal files.

Neither Rushkoff nor screenagers are the point here, but rather the whole business of trying to make up new words to cope with a changing world. It doesn’t happen overnight. Television is a great case in point, although actually the word was invented before the thing itself, which was clever: the word means seeing at a distance, and was first used at the 1900 World’s Fair. Despite the first TVs being made in the 1920s, there was still uncertainty about its name in 1936, when a competition to find the best TV system threw up all sorts of arguments about what to call it, leading to alternate suggestions such as radioscope, farscope, mirascope, optiphone, and lustreer.

The name of something matters and, like babies and goldfish, new things don’t tend to arrive already named (well babies sometimes do in fact, but I reckon people should wait to see what they look like). It is not as obvious as it seems what something should be called: just using it or looking at it won’t necessarily make it clear either. Bicycles, for instance, were once called pedestrian accelerators, and velocipedes (same thing I think), and you can see the point. But once someone came up with the name bicycle, the search was over. It only took sixty years.

It’s been a bit of a struggle too to find a way of talking about educational technologies. ICTs. Technology Enhanced Learning. Digital literacy. New media literacy. Computer Assisted Learning. Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Blended Learning. eLearning. I long held the belief, wrongly I now realise, that if you can’t name something with any certainty it means that you don’t know what you are talking about. But actually trying to find out what to call something is all part of the process of gradually learning what that thing is, because all new things take a while to reveal themselves; you have to work at it. There is no single good term as yet for what we do, which is to investigate and illuminate how digital tools and networks, and the practices surrounding them, change education and learning in various ways. eLearning used to feel like a respectable shorthand for that, but its connotations have become more specific and limited, which is why we changed the name of our research group  to Learning and New Technologies. Actually, the Learning And New Technologies Research Network. Look out for our logo, coming soon.

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