“Literary Technology” – How You Talk Is as Important as What You’re Talking About

In their 1985 work Leviathan and the Air Pump, the two historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer coined the term “literary technology” to describe the new style of writing adopted by 17th-century experimental philosophers, whom we would today call scientists. Shapin and Shaffer examine the debate between political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, of Leviathan fame, and the experimental philosopher Robert Boyle over whether one can establish scientific truth through experimentation. Robert Boyle’s invention of this so-called “literary technology” is obscure, and the term is itself, perhaps, academically arcane, but it can nonetheless provide insight into just how powerful the perfect word can be.

Boyle argued that with careful, reproducible experimentation he could discover scientific truths, though he recognized that these truths were provisional. Hobbes disagreed. To counter Hobbes’s claims, Boyle devised a “literary technology” that enabled what Shapin and Schaffer call “virtual witnessing.” That is, Boyle codified a set of writing practices that made it possible for experimental philosophers to convince other experimental philosophers that their claims were valid.

Boyle’s air pump—experimental technology—which Shapin and Shaffer argue was just as important as his literary technology: a scientific writing style for experimental philosophers.

Experimental philosophers who followed Boyle’s writing practices recorded their experiments meticulously so that other experimenters could read their accounts without having to witness the experiments in person. Skeptical readers could retrace the experimenter’s steps and validate the original outcome. Boyle’s innovation was important because it allowed experimenters to communicate their findings to a far larger audience than they were able to otherwise. It also provided the community of experimental philosophers a means of determining the credibility of a particular experimenter without having to rely solely on their social standing, which wasn’t always a good gauge of trustworthiness. Scientists today use an evolved form of Boyle’s literary technology every time they publish a scientific paper.

We might be hesitant to call Boyle’s literary technology “technology” at all. His air pump, a new experimental apparatus, sure, that’s technology—but his writing style? Yet defining Boyle’s rigorous method of recording experiments as technology is useful because it helps us recognize just how vital Boyle’s use of language was to the success of his methodology. The scientific method is just as much a tool as a microscope or spectrometer, and Boyle’s literary technology helped experimental philosophers refine and communicate that method. Without Boyle’s literary technology, or something like it, experimental philosophers would not have been able to productively share their findings with colleagues who had not witnessed their work first hand.

Boyle’s success should resonate with anyone in the tech world today. Finding the perfect language to describe a service is an integral part of both marketing and user experience. Users and potential customers use your language to understand your product and to explain it to others every day. Examples of literary technology are everywhere.

Etsy uses the term “community tastemaker” to describe their community members who curate hundreds of items and have tens of thousands of followers. These tastemakers show Etsy at its best. By sharing what they love, community tastemakers highlight worthy merchants and craftspeople and bring the Etsy community together over shared interests. The term “community tastemaker” creates a niche for these curators and empowers them to perform a vital role in the community. “Community” highlights the social role curators take on, and “tastemaker” emphasizes their sensibility and influence. With community tastemakers as their examples, Etsy users can feel that they too are part of a community simply by virtue of their own tastes. It’s a simple phrase, but one that continues to pay dividends for Etsy and its community.

Another example of literary technology is so powerful that it’s become a verb in its own right. “Kickstart.” Of course, the word existed as a hyphenate long before Kickstarter adopted it, but Kickstarter has written a new definition that now sits beside “to start an engine with the downward thrust of a pedal” and “an impetus given to get a process started or restarted” in the vernacular. Yet the new “kickstart” still carries some of the weight of the original phrase. When backers pledge money toward a project, the sense of satisfaction and involvement is almost as tangible as the resistance of a pedal and roar of an engine that the old “kick-start” connotes.

Our last example concerns Twitter and is more subtle than the others we’ve discussed so far. And no, the phrase in question isn’t “retweet.” It’s “follow.” Twitter didn’t coin this word, but Robert Boyle didn’t create his literary technology from scratch either. He adopted an existing mode of communication from the courtroom, where the credibility of a statement could determine life and death, and applied it to experimental philosophy. In a similar, but perhaps less dramatic, way, Twitter has taken a word that recalls the philosophical followings of great thinkers, the artistic movements inspired by prominent artists, the alliances formed under the guidance of charismatic politicians, and so on. On Twitter, everyone can feel like they’re their own expert—everyone has their own group of followers.

At Switchboard, our most powerful piece of literary technology consists of the two words “ask” and “offer.” Switchboard users log on to a switchboard dedicated to their community (knitting club, neighborhood, college) and post offers for advice, jobs, places to stay, rides, hugs, etc. or post asks for other users to help them find the same things. Members of these communities are already willing to help one another out; they just need a place and way to do it. The terms “ask” and “offer” make this sometimes abstract exchange of goodwill understandable, concrete. Reaching out to one’s community to ask for help or lend a hand is as easy as making a post. When we’re at a loss for words trying to describe Switchboard to people, we show them what a switchboard looks like. The moment they see the variety of the labels “ask” and “offer” attached to existing posts—“James is hiring an editorial intern,” “Rachel and Kim seek housing for a week in Hawaii”—everything clicks into place, and using Switchboard becomes intuitive.

When Robert Boyle devised what we would today call a scientific writing style, he did it to settle a dispute with his detractor Thomas Hobbes. Today, those of us who employ literary technologies have the benefit of not having to do battle with one of the giants of Western thought. Yet finding the right language is as necessary as difficult—as it ever has been. We hope that our using the phrase “literary technology” as a kind of literary technology itself, as a conceptual tool that lends insight into the power and uses of language, has been a helpful reminder that how you talk is as important as what you talk about.