Technobabble

Technobabble

[tek-noh-bab-uhl]
Technobabble (a portmanteau of technology and babble) is a form of prose using jargon, buzzwords and highly esoteric language to give an impression of plausibility through mystification, misdirection, and obfuscation. This is not to be confused with jargon itself, but rather technobabble is a conscious attempt to deliver jargon to outsiders, without insight or comprehensive explanation, to make unsound or unprovable arguments appear to have merit.

Various fields of practice and industry have their own specialised vocabularies (jargon) that are intended to convey specific features in a concise manner to those educated within that industry, which would otherwise appear confusing or nonsensical to an outside listener. Additionally, the sound use of jargon will concisely convey information (even if that information is not fully understood by the listener). Conversely, the primary function of technobabble is to obscure the truth of a situation by overdressing the words and concepts.

Origins

The Oxford Companion to the English Language states: "An informal term for the use or overuse of technical jargon. John A. Barry in the introduction to Technobabble (MIT Press, 1991) says that 'the word connotes meaningless chatter about technology' but 'is also a form of communication among people in the rapidly advancing computer and other high-technology industries.'"

As Barry notes in Technobabble, "The word first cropped up in the early 1980s, derived from or inspired by psychobabble, the title of a 1977 book by Richard Rosen and an entry, credited to Rosen, in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary."

As an early example of the word technobabble 's use, Barry cites the title of a 1984 article by David Roth in Franson's Business Report on Technology: "William Safire, Eat Your Dictionary; Here Comes Technobabble."

Barry is sometimes erroneously credited with coining the term, probably because of his 268-page book on the subject.

Common uses

Authors and others who wish to convey a feeling of technical sophistication may write or talk in technobabble. They may use the jargon without considering what it actually means in order to give an impression that they know things that their readers or listeners do not. However, if the jargon is decoded it becomes apparent that the originator does not really understand what has been said or is deliberately being unclear. When used in this way, technobabble is considered pretentious and often unacceptable. If used inappropriately even novice listeners can often detect that nonsense is being spouted forth.

Technobabble's principal use in most science fiction, in particular more hard science fiction is to conceal the true (impossible) nature of materials, technologies or devices mentioned in the story, frequently because of a violation of the laws of physics as we know them. For example, a transporter in the Star Trek universe is said to have a "Heisenberg compensator", a nod to the fact that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle renders such a transporting device impossible.

As reality and somewhat serious projections about the future are important in hard sci-fi, technobabble can shield a narrative from the problems that occur when the science background of the writer runs up against many of the blunt realities facing space travel, such as the Special Theory of Relativity. A hard sci-fi universe has no "scientific" explanation for faster than light or FTL travel as none exists in science and few are conceivable, thus a technobabble "enabling device" is frequently used to get around the problem. Technobabble also occurs in soft science fiction although here, it is frequently just a throw-away part of the world and not dwelt on.

Soft sci-fi generally prefers unobtanium or handwavium to technobabble, as it is less taxing on the reader and fits with the setting of telling a story in a sci-fi setting as opposed to telling a story about partially fictional science.

Forms

There are two forms of technobabble. The first form, mostly used in fiction, depends on jargon terms and story features that are specific or even exclusive to the story's universe. Stringing together a series of these elements to explain a problem or solution allows the author to easily craft a situation without having to depend on real-world laws to correlate to or confirm it. For example, a specialised form known as Treknobabble can be found in the various Star Trek television programs and movies. Other science fiction movies and literature have their own form of technobabble. This is often done because the concepts and items being talked about are fictional but necessary for the story. This form of technobabble amuses some viewers and puts off others.

The second form of technobabble comes from the practice of taking an otherwise simple concept and describing it in a scientifically-overworked manner to mask its inherent simplicity (see: Sesquipedalian Obscurantism). One well-known example is the dihydrogen monoxide hoax, describing the supposedly dangerous characteristics of ordinary water by labelling the substance with an esoteric chemical name.

Some forms of technobabble have the goal of intentionally convincing the reader that the science explained is true even though it may not be. One such example is Isaac Asimov's "The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline" (1948). Another example is Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (1996), in which Sokal submitted a seeming real, but non-sensical paper to the Journal Social Text in order to make a point about the social aspects of the scientific process.

See also

External links

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