understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
navigation menu top border

.:home:.     .:project:.    .:people:.     .:research:.     .:blog:.     .:resources:.     .:media:.

navigation menu bottom border
main display area top border
« The Power of Privacy to Obscure Equality: Abortion Rights Under Attack (again) | Main | Wireless device can monitor patients »

Softening Semantics

posted by:Marty // 07:50 PM // March 30, 2005 // Core Concepts: language and labels

“Language is a virus”, William S. Burroughs

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is taking a page from a long history of the Military’s softening of language. Wired has published this article describing the spin that’s been done to RFID tags and their upcoming use in U.S. Passports.

Conspiracy theorists and civil libertarians, fear not. The U.S. government will not use radio-frequency identification tags in the passports it issues to millions of Americans in the coming years.
Instead, the government will use "contactless chips."
The distinction is part of an effort by the Department of Homeland Security and one of its RFID suppliers, Philips Semiconductors, to brand RFID tags in identification documents as "proximity chips," "contactless chips" or "contactless integrated circuits" -- anything but "RFID."

See the article here http://www.wired.com/news/privacy/0,1848,67025,00.html

From my perspective, language and culture have been fused into a symbiotic relationship. North American culture is very much a military culture. The Military, as the trigger of the government, is a big user of euphemistic language. The practice of using euphemisms has been parachuted into the public domain; the epitome of which is political correctness. Military language has been pressed upon North America thanks to Hollywood’s idolization of the Military. Hollywood has taken this ideal, Saving Private Ryan-like, image and sexed up in movies like The Rock. The byproduct of Hollywood and the culture industry putting this iconography into the public is that certain elements are picked up by popular culture. They become carried by a society to the point where they become ubiquitous in its language and symbols.

While this may not be an intentional effort on the Military’s part, they do get something out of it. By having citizens use the words, metaphors, expressions, acronyms and slang of the rank and file, it puts the public more at ease to the Military, and now in a post 9-11 Homeland Security reality this will further extend into the 'home'. Subconsciously they become a step closer to a military mindset, absorbing words. Words become “images of words repeated in the mind and not of the image of the thing itself”*. The semantics become softcore.

*“We must find out what words are and how they function. They become images when written down, but images of words repeated in the mind and not of the image of the thing itself."
- W.S. Burroughs

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


"language and culture have been fused into a symbiotic relationship." Yes, but this is not new. It goes back to when Ugg the cave man first mastered the words for fire and ax. We would not have culture without language - we would not even have thought as we know it without language.

As far as RFID vs "contactless chips", neither is a euphemism. The article points out a technical difference between the RFIDs which are starting to be deployed, which can be read 30 feet away, and the contactless chips used for documents, which can only be read 4 inches away. Big companies have been using contactless access cards for years. You have to wave them near the sensor to open doors into secured areas. Those are quite different from the RFIDs starting to be used by Walmart.

It is a different technology although there are superficial similarities in that both are passive devices that respond to radio signals. But the power profiles, data storage, sensor range and other details are so different that it seems reasonable to call them by different names.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 31, 2005 03:30 PM

I can't tell you intended to use the passive voice in this post ironically, but given the subject at hand, it is damn funny.

I particularly enjoyed the construction, "have been parachuted."

Posted by: gilbert at April 5, 2005 06:53 PM

Gilbert: You hit the bullseye on that one, the passive voice was inteneded for humour's sake.

Anon: I believe you missed the point of my post. The intention of the post was to convey the notion that pop culture has a continuing fascination with the Military, and hence Military-speak/euphemisms. Thus, the softening of language, such as "neutrilizing targets" vs. "killing the enemy", will have its own affects and cross-over into pop culture in the age of Homeland Security.

Posted by: marty at April 6, 2005 09:59 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

main display area bottom border

.:privacy:. | .:contact:.

This is a SSHRC funded project:
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada