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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, September 01, 2008

the power of names, naming, and knowing names in digital culture

I was just trying to look up the grammatical rules for a certain construction in English wherein two nouns are used together to refer to a single entity. for example, "Computer Science" is such a construction, as it uses the noun "Computer" and the noun "Science" to create a new noun. I started off googling "multiple word noun," "multi-word noun phrase," and similar variants. somewhere along the line, I recalled that this construction might be called a compound noun, and sure enough, that's the right name.

there are plenty of times where, through iterative searching, you can figure out the right search terms to use to find what it is that you're after. however, there are certainly other instances, like this one, where if you don't know the name of something, you can't find out anything about it. there are lots of situations where this difficulty arises. if you want to know the name of the artist who painted a famous work, it's difficult to search for the work itself, even if you know exactly what it looks like, without knows its name (presumably, you could browse various galleries and archives, but now you've circumvented needing to do a search). similarly, if you saw the symbol for British pounds but tried to search for "L with a line through it," you wouldn't get very far. interestingly, though, search "O with two dots" gets several hits for umlaut, making that one pretty easy to find based on the description.

not only does this have potential implications for designers (and users) of text-based search engines performing queries related to non-textual data, there are serious implications with respect to distribution and exercises of power. choosing a name for something is obviously a powerful act. however, knowing a name for something gives you power as well, but power of different sorts. the power of reference, the power of understanding, and, I'd argue, powers of searching and finding.

this line of thinking makes me wonder what other sorts of power come along with knowing names, especially in digital cultures where most digital knowledge-oriented activities and interactions are text based. it also makes me wonder how one might subvert the power of name-knowing. one possibility is, as a namer, choosing a name that is so general it does not refer with any specificity to the thing in question. another option might be something like google bombing, which makes it the case that knowing the name of something might end up leading you away from the thing. I wonder what other sorts of power relations might be involved in name-knowing, and how those power relations might come into play with different ways of naming and ways of knowing.

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