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opinion | HOWARD AXELROD

Computer metaphors are invading our language

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff illustration

An old friend called a few weeks ago to catch up. There was a kind of splinter in his voice. After a warm-up exchange about the NBA playoffs, he told me that his sister was using drugs again. Her husband had known for months and hid the knowledge from my friend’s family.

“It’s taking a while to process,” he said. Then he added, “Process our emotions, process the situation — that’s what everyone keeps saying. But it doesn’t feel like the right word. It sounds so efficient, when, really, everything is such a mess.”

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“I can only imagine,” I said.

“You’re a writer,” he said. “Give me a word I can use. Instead of ‘process,’ a word that goes with how it feels.”

I floundered. Nothing was quite right. We tried on “absorb’’ and “reconcile.’’ But nothing sat easily with him. Which seemed part of the feeling itself — its ineffability.

So, later that night, I opened my dictionary. Under “process’’ as a verb, there were only two meanings: 1: to proceed against by law; 2: to subject to a special process or treatment (e.g., with food, film, or hair). There was no hint of my friend’s usage, common as it has become.

But my dictionary is from 1989, otherwise known as the Dark Ages. The updated version, which I found on the Internet, adds: 3: to handle through an established usually routine set of procedures (process insurance claims); 4: to integrate sensory information (the brain processes visual images relayed from the retina); 5: to subject to examination or analysis (computers process data).

In each of the newer definitions, “process’’ is a computer metaphor, the implication being that whether processing insurance claims, sensory information, data, or emotions, the processor — whether a person, brain, or computer — functions like a computer processing code: step by step, leading in the most efficient manner to the desired result.

It did sound efficient, but also overly optimistic. How was my friend to proceed in a linear fashion through the nuances of his sister’s news? Maybe to talk about “processing’’ was to obscure the slow complexity of his thoughts and feelings.

How had technology, rather than poets and thinkers, come to give us the language for our inner lives?

There was a time when all such language came from the physical world. As Emerson writes in his essay “Nature,’’ “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” He cites the examples of “spirit,’’ from the Latin for wind, and “transgression,’’ from the Latin for the crossing of a line. My favorite has always been “consider,’’ from the Latin ‘‘considerare’’: to gaze at the stars. Even our most abstract words, like “abstract,’’ which means to pull away from (think tractor), came from the physical world. There was a time when to pay attention to the wind and the stars was to be surrounded by the dictionary for our inner lives, and when to consult the dictionary was to be surrounded by the wind and the stars.

But the world changes and our language changes, as it should. Indeed, technological metaphors have often deepened our understanding not only of each other, but also of the natural world. When Walt Whitman proclaims, “I sing the body electric,” he’s suggesting not just the vitality of the body, but also the body’s ecstatic potential for connecting with another body and joining the larger “field” of nature. As Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book “The Empathic Civilization,’’ electricity in the 1800s gave the Romantics a perfect metaphor for the transcendent. “The lure of the electrical metaphor lies in the notion that electricity is perceived as neither material nor immaterial.” Even today, when we call a performance “electrifying,” we mean a palpable yet invisible current running through the music and into the crowd, performer and audience becoming a kind of circuit, energy coursing through them.

And yet, there’s a key difference between the electricity and computer metaphors. Electricity is a part of our bodies: We rely on electrical signals in our brains and in our nerves to think and to move. But a computer racing through code is disembodied, its speed and scale foreign to us, nothing we’re related to in any evolutionary way.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that technology takes words from the natural world to try to make itself more familiar to us: the web, the hive, the cloud. But while particular virtues of nature (organization, productivity, ubiquity) may apply to those technologies, that doesn’t mean the virtues of technology (speed, efficiency, compression of time and space) apply to our inner lives.

My friend called again two nights ago. I told him I hadn’t found a word for him, only that “process’’ definitely wasn’t it.

“It’s just going to take a while to move through,” he said.

That seemed the most apt, and most human, phrasing of all. Computers don’t need time. They don’t need space. They don’t have sisters who relapse, or brothers-in-law who lie. They don’t have to deal with emotions or contradictions or fear. But we’re human. And we do.

Howard Axelrod’s memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont, will be released in the fall of 2015.
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