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Why Do We Say That Our Phones and Computers 'Die'?


First, Firefox refuses to load. Before you know it, basic Word documents are crashing. Finally, your screen goes black. Your computer has “died.”

You knew the end would come; maybe you checked your computer’s “symptoms” online. The “lifespan” of a desktop is only three to five years, after all, and an iPhone that lasts more than a couple years exceeds its “life expectancy.” We treat technology as disposable, yet we ascribe human characteristics to our gadgets. Batteries die; computers "hibernate" and “go to sleep.”

This phenomenon is not as novel as it might seem. The use of the verb “to die” to talk about the breakdown of an inanimate object is nothing new, according to linguists. “Electrical things have been described as ‘dead’ since the start of the twentieth century at least,” said Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex. “The Oxford English Dictionary has an example of a telephone being 'dead' in 1929. Saying that electric machines have died is probably as old as electric machines.” The personification of objects—particularly their untimely ending—isn't just limited to vocabulary, either. Over a hundred people attended a “funeral” for an outdated web browser in 2010, and soldiers regularly hold services for defunct combat robots. We wouldn’t be so intrigued by the idea of a man falling in love with a robot if it seemed outside the realm of possibility. 

We might anthropomorphize technology in order to deal with something relatively new and unfamiliar. In Metaphors We Live By, linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff argue that we use metaphorical language to create a familiar framework in which to talk about complex or foreign aspects of our experience. “Most of the core vocabulary of modern computer technology is a metaphoric extension of some concept that originally applied in a simpler, more concrete area of life,” said University of Colorado Boulder lexicographer Orin Hargraves. “As their first-resort metaphor, people like things that are easy to conceptualize or visualize. If there's something related to everyday life that does the job, that's what people go for.” We "run" computer programs, then we "shut" them down, although neither of these involve the original, root action of the verb. 

If the instinct to anthropomorphize technology stems from some kind of impulse to make sense of technological evolution, what are the implications? Could the language we use to talk about technology influence the way we think about it? It's a debatable matter, but there’s evidence that vocabulary has at least some impact on thought. Speakers of languages without terms for numbers greater than two—so-called “one-two-many" systems—have trouble distinguishing among larger quantities. Speakers of languages that assign gender to nouns attribute gendered characteristics to those nouns. The word “key,” for instance, is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish, and researchers have found that German-speakers are more likely to describe keys as “jagged,” “hard,” and “heavy,” whereas Spanish speakers tend to say they’re “intricate,” “little,” and “lovely.”

Anthropomorphizing our gadgets might help us come to terms with their greater roles in our day-to-day lives, but it could also fundamentally change the way we think about them, making their prominence in our lives seem more natural. People give vacuums and robots names worthy of humans—which might make it seem normal that we're naming kids after technology. (The incidence of the girls’ name “Siri” rose 5 percent from 2011 to 2012.) Will all this "death" of machines change the way we think about death itself?

Image via Shutterstock.