Seman-tech Changes?

 We know that languages change over time. Some of these changes are shifts in word usage and word senses. The world of technology changes rapidly, and it’s no surprise that word senses might reflect that. Three English nouns have caught my eye recently with respect to this topic: space, culture and brand. Go to any English dictionary and you will observe a multitude of senses for each of these words. They have what linguists call high polysemy, or many meanings. In the current tech world there are meanings for these words which I haven’t found in dictionaries, maybe because they are so newly emergent, maybe even within just the past four or five years.

For example, it’s common in tech circles now to hear or read about current funding levels in social space, or vendors who are leaders in a certain technology space. Space in these contexts is a sphere of activity, but, something more fluidly defined than an industry and less specific than a product or product line. An area of innovation might be a good paraphrase.

New word senses are often metaphoric extensions of earlier senses. So, which prior meaning of space is this new sense related to? I don’t think its connection is to a physical expanse (he liked the wide open space of the desert) nor to the freedom of opportunity (the company gave its employees space to explore new ideas). More likely it’s related to the mathematical, algorithmic sense used in, e.g., search space, which refers to a set of possible points, or solutions, answers, from which one or some will be selected. A space in the new sense implies problem solving, building and/or discovering solutions to a problem in the context of other solutions that may exist or are being invented/discovered by competitors. For now, this sense of space seems to exist within the tech community, but, will it expand to other domains of enterprise, e.g., government, entertainment, law?

Consider culture. We speak of ancient cultures, of youth culture, pop culture and corporate culture. The latter three senses specify traits for group membership, being young, artful, or business savvy. In the world of techies, culture has taken on a narrower sense, referring to the attitudes and behaviors specific to individual organizations — not the business world at large. (Okay, there is startup culture, which is broader than one company but not inclusive of all business.)

Job postings seek candidates who will be a good fit with the firm’s culture. It’s a good choice for what’s being described; the boundaries between work life and personal life are blurred in most startups (and also in fast-paced larger tech firms),

Some big companies used to refer to themselves as a family, employees would be joining a family. The term family suggests a roster of specific individuals with respective roles. It implies long term, stable commitments and relationships. The current use of culture doesn’t imply the long term or specific people, but it implies a set of attitudes and behaviors that are to be embraced by the participants.

Brand is no longer just a marker or id for a manufactured product, it has become a shorthand reference to the skills, actions, services, personality and other publicly perceived traits of individuals. The rise of social media and the ability to self-publish and self-advertise undoubtedly led to the emergence of this new sense of brand. This new sense of brand can also refer to whole groups or companies, but it’s not referring to specific products, but rather characterizing the reputation, the public face, of the group.

Interestingly, culture’s new sense — unlike brand’s new sense — cannot be singularized. There is no culture of one, there must be a group, probably more than two individuals? But, you can speak of his or her brand, as well as their brand. When you refer to his or her culture, you are jumping back to the broader reference to a whole country or society. It’s a different sense of the word.

As new situations and new activities arise, people will find a way to think about them, talk about them, name them. This is a big driver of how word senses change. Car referred to railway carriages in the early nineteenth century in the United States, but later came to refer to automobiles. Today, the railway sense is more restricted and usually occurs with additional modifiers (box car, dining car, sleeping car, quiet car). The dominant sense of car today is automobile, not surprising given the number of autos in the world and the huge role they play in everyday life.

Finally, the noun phrases full stack and full stacker offer interesting examples of word sense evolution. I read a job posting for a tech startup that was looking for a full stacker. Another posting had a job for a full stack programmer. (Note: tech startup job boards are a treasure trove of molten semantics – language change in motion!) When I first read these phrases, I wondered whether they referred to the call stack of a computer program (a data structure that manages the subroutines of an executing program). The details of the call stack are usually automatically handled in high-level programming languages, so application developers don’t manually work with them. So, I assumed a full stacker was a programmer with the chops to tweak the call stack, someone comfortable and experienced writing internal operating system code as well as user-oriented code modules. Screw up your operating system code and you will have a really bad day.

The phrases turn out to be richer and more malleable than my initial guess. The stack metaphor has been extended to mean whole product solutions or implementations. Instead of being composed of runtime subroutines, the new stack is composed of software modules which could include different libraries, classes, databases, APIs, operating system, etc., which taken together deliver a software solution. A lot of this is web-centric obviously; for example, the term stack is used contrastively with glue in comparing programming frameworks for the scripting language PHP. A stack framework is one-stop shopping, with all packages included, a glue framework requires/enables a programmer to mix and match their libraries to build an application.

On Quora someone asked for the meaning of full stack programmer and got two answers; the first defined it as a techie generalist who could switch hit among technical tasks, and the second defined it more specifically (and more accurately) as a programmer who can code both server side and web side components.

Yet another sense of full stack refers to electric guitar amplification – an amplifier with two speaker cabinets is called a full stack; in contrast, an amplifier with just one speaker cabinet is called a half stack. It seems doubtful this usage is the origin for the newly-emergent programming sense, and I bet no one wants to be called a half-stack programmer!

My favorite definition for full stack web developer — someone able to turn a loose pile of electrons into a fully operating and styled website.  It goes with a nerd merit badge. And what’s the graphic on the badge? A stack of pancakes. ; )

Will these new senses spread to new contexts? For example, might skilled, multi-tasking assistants to government officials or executive managers start being called full stackers? It probably depends on the metaphoric alignments, which features of a given sense become more salient, or less so. The world keeps changing and language responds to this, words need breathing room. Newly emerging senses may not be wholly consistent at their outset, people may read or hear them (or use them) without being certain of their meaning, making guesses. But, we have to agree on basic senses in order to communicate. Really pretty amazing how it all works.

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2 Responses to Seman-tech Changes?

  1. bbear says:

    Back in DOS days ‘stack’ referred to a small, convenient memory segment mostly used in a last-in-first-out fashion: In assembly language you could ‘push’ the contents of, say, a register onto the top of the stack and then later ‘pop’ it off to the same or a different destination, with the stack pointer adjusted accordingly. Under MASM 5.0 the default size for the stack segment was only 1024 bytes, and much smaller stacks were usually more than adequate. This configuration was echoed in Intel’s math coprocessor chips, where a stack of eight registers, ST through ST(7), was directly addressable via assembler’s ‘f’ commands (fadd, fmul, etc)…

    Nothing of this earlier, low-level understanding of ‘stack’ appears to remain in the usage ‘full-stack programmer.’ Indeed, since a full stack came right before stack overflow and consequent program crash, we might construe a full-stack programmer to be one given to risky coding, or one insufficiently attentive to deeply recursive routines. ;-)…

    • achouston says:

      Hi BBear!

      Interesting points about the early DOS days wrt to ‘stack’. Hmmm, maybe we’ll see pejorative semantic development at some future point — job description — wanted a full stacker, but overflow stackers need not apply. :- ) Hope you are doing great!

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