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The language of alienation

I just stubbed my toe on a linguistic thread on reddit (as one does): what sentence can you come up with that would be completely incomprehensible (without a detailed explanation) ten years ago?

Some examples, culled from reddit, to get you started:

hang2er: "I can't get a 4G signal here, I'll skype you on my droid as soon as I hit a hotspot, I need a coffee anyway."

Retinence: "The headline, 'Galaxy Nexus: Android Ice Cream Sandwich guinea pig.'"

(But tech is easy ...)

YesRocketScience: "She started out pure Kate Middleton but then she went all Amanda Bynes on me."

Anon: "Check your cis privilege!"

(That would probably be comprehensible, but only to a much narrower audience -- certainly not mainstream in places like reddit)

My reason for being interested in this phenomenon should be obvious: flip it upside-down and you've got incomprehensible phrases to decode from ten years into the future. Or leave it where it was and stretch the horizon out and you've got incomprehensible phrases from twenty or thirty years ago. ("Hello, I'm on the train!" -- how much sense would that make in 1983? Much less "FAA proposes to relax ban on tablets, laptops, and smartphones during takeoff and landing"?)

Most of the ten-year sentences focus on the ephemera of technology and, to a lesser extent of pop culture (Beeeeeeber!). (Yes, pop culture is more durable today than tech.) Politics probably cuts in as an agent of temporal disorientation somewhere in the 10-20 year range: feed someone in 1993 a line like "Department of Homeland Security proposes relaxing ban on toenail clippers" and they'd surely have grounds to worry about their future. Cultural drift is ... well, the state of play of gay marriage today, wrt. the gay rights situation 20 years ago, is close to unrecognizable. The major political and social shift over the recognition and suppression of rape culture seems to be going the same way (and a good thing too). But SF authors have been using finely-crafted soundbites from the future to alienate their readers from their assumptions for a long time: "the Pope realized it was going to be one of those days when she realized she'd forgotten to take her Pill the night before."

But, anyway: can you come up with some examples of sentences that would be incomprehensible (without explanation) to a denizen of 2003 that don't revolve around ephemeral tech or pop culture churn? And can you provide and deconstruct some sentences from 2023 that, if we had sufficient foresight, we ought to be able to understand and interpolate a context for?

TECHNICAL NOTE: Following Monday's system crash, the comments some of you posted on Monday can't be restored. Turns out that my save of them wasn't as HTML, which might be salvageable, but as some Cthulhu-esque horror of half-assed UTF-8 with hard line breaks and random bits of MarkDown. It was a royal pain in the arse just extracting the text of the blog entry itself: I'm not up to doing the same to 84 comments. Sorry, folks, but this thread is therefore rebooted from scratch.



From Reuters, yesterday: "Connecticut gov tells commuters to work from home this week while crash repaired"

The crash in question is explainable right back to the beginning of trains: a NY-Boston derailled and caused track damage that is still being repaired.

The CT governor's announcement, however, would be very strange 10 years ago and ridiculous more than 15 or 20 years ago.


Missouri Attorney General Expands Anti-Smurfing Campaign

Independent boards Pussy Riot doc (announced just six hours ago)


Newsflash, 2033: "Moon-landing denialists are under Data Sanction".

It is clearly stated in Foxipedia and the published key stage 4 XinHua NewsCorp curriculum for London schools that Wu Fei was the first human being to set foot on the moon, on July 4th 2023, and the recent incongruous statements by denialists constitute a deliberate attempt to undermine historic data integrity.

We anticipate that Redaction of all noncongruous data will be completed by midnight UTC.

[Background op-ed and analysis]

The recent claims that unnamed predecessor states of the North American Free Trade Zone were ever capable of manufacturing a working space craft are not only ridiculous but incomprehensible: where would they get the capital? The engineers? The electronics and precision-engineered components?

This, in a country of widespread illiteracy - fewer than half the population know the age of the Earth or can describe the evolution of bacterial resistance - that tolerates premature death from preventable diseases and widespread malnutrition.

Further, the denialists insist that these 'landings' ceased after three years, never to return, as if a corporation with the capability to do so would reject the opportunity to build the present-day orbital and circumlunar industry.

Transient insertion memes for Conversation (TM):

How convenient that the denialists make these claims a decade after everyone who allegedly participated died of old age

We await an equally-credible claim that Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and imaginary Atlanteans were there before them


Data Sanction takes effect immediately. All records, tags, metadata, 'media-containing', conversations-in-progress and Experiences apertaining to Sanctioned Persons are under interdict until recertified by your Assurance Software. Automated congruence Assurance is in progress on all Recorded data: you are reminded that you have a duty to ensure that any offlines you possess are on open channels for redactive checking while a Sanction is in effect.


From your 2023 utility bill: "At current rates of consumption you will have exhausted your Greenhouse gas allotment by the end of the reporting period and will fall below the threshold allowed for exercise the reproduction licence of your currently approved second child".


Vagueness is a way to cause confusion for people not familiar with the events. For instance: because of the sub-prime thing my house is underwater.


Well I'm not going to post the postulate that 2023 will potentially be in a chinese headline, for the news that matters, again - though I still think it's distinctly plausible.


For 2003: "H7N9 response lowered" Sure the flu surface proteins were known by health types in 2003, but not the general populous. It was still a few years before H5N1 entered the lexicon.

For 2023: "Kuwait accused of exportland as Israel collapses" We know that the level of oil exports, globally, have been falling for 7 years now, as production flatlines and domestic demand rises. However the 'exportland' concept, the idea that the oil exports available for importing countries declines faster that world production, isn't commonly understood. By 2023 we can expect the differential availability of oil to be making economies grind to a halt as transportation stops and societal systems break.

It's already collapsing countries, but nobody has put the name to it, yet - or recognised how the blame can be spread around as a form of economic warfare.


"Three-child policy compliance rates falling for third consecutive year."

"Ecoterrorism trial update: Monsanto granted immunity in exchange for testimony against Shell."

"ISPs arguing against class-action status for pain & suffering suit after undetected network partition causes consciousness divergence for 4.3M deceased."


Well, I'll try again.

"Hey, did you hear another Green Cross shop got broken into last night?"

Sure, the idea that marijuana could be used for medical problems is old (Bush Sr. & his mj derived glaucoma eyedrops 20 years ago). That it would be legally sold--by prescription only--for that purpose, in shops (lots of them, often with green cross signs*) was pretty unthinkable ten years ago. The shops themselves are often hard to take seriously. What would you make of filling a prescription with Jamaican Rainbow brownies? I'm making that name up, but you get the idea. All sort of baked goods and buds with typical pot names available.

*Not to be confused with this one


2013: Notice: Glass Not Allowed in these Offices. (OK might actually mean something to the population at large next year)

2023: My AR overlay update failed and I ended up in Bayswater. Which would have been OK, but I don't speak Farsi


"Greek IPO cancelled after Spain trims dividend projections on fears of hostile futures manipulations by competing olive producers."

"Supreme Court rejects Google bid to marry Facebook for taxation, data-sharing rights; union recognised only in Delaware."

"Army defends installation of IO onto draftees, claims national security exemption to privacy & autonomy while in service."

"Bicycle couriers on strike in protest against unfair competition from drones."


Reposting my comment from before...

This one could come from the near future:

"Pot farm front for illegal gun printing ring."

A bit more hard to grasp in the US than the UK because of the idea that pot would be legal and guns illegal. But in both the idea that a marijuana growing operation would be a respectable front business for legal activities would be odd. Added to that, the ability to print guns would be a shock....


Ok, I'll try again, from probably slightly beyond 2023:

"Due to mid-polls strat surprise, expecting a wave of last-minute vote flip".

(contextual cues: internet-based e-voting with certain expert-suggested features, plus abandon of the rules of no-commenting/no-campaigning during the election proper, while the rest of the world gives you vote tallies and comments before the last polling station closes)


Something that probably was seen as a "won't happen" headline that could, but to my knowledge hasn't, appear:

"The bishop of Stockholm and her wife attended the premier of..."


Obvious example lf 2013 phrase not understandable in 2003: two and a half years on what can we predict for the future of the Arab Spring?

Predictable 2023 phrase understandable in 2013: as growth forecasts were revised down again today to 0.01% the Chancellor insists his plan is working and that whilst it continues to be a slow recovery insists Britain's economy is improving. In other news the number of people employed rose by 50,000 this month as a raft of new temporary, part time, minimum wage contracts opened up with companies that project billion pound profits later this year.


A tweet that almost reads like line noise:

Google's #FRAND-zero #patent license for #VP8 threatens to divide Web and FOSS communities OSI President not amused


Probably incomprehensible to Joe Public in 2003; understandable enough to get sitcom laughs (ok from a "The BIg Bang Theory" audience but still) in 2010:-

"Hey, nice virtual presence device".


Something that probably was seen as a "won't happen" headline that could, but to my knowledge hasn't, appear:

"The bishop of Stockholm and her wife attended the premier of...".

However, we can say that Gene Robinson, bishop of New Hampshire, retired in January. He will spend more time with his husband, and started a book tour which included an appearance on the Colbert Report, which I streamed to my tablet.

A few other sentences: "Justin Bieber was swatted last week."

"Spear phishing is becoming an increasing threat to personal security."

"This year, Maker Faires will be held everywhere from Willits to Barcelona."

"Gangnam style is #1 on YouTube."

"Kim's turned into such a locavore, it's really annoying."


Sorry, missed the tech and pop culture ephemera.

Here's another one:

"Graduating seniors should consider whether it's still worth going to college or not."


As for 2023, how about something like:

"He made his first fortune with a chain of mobile printshops for Clintonvilles in the Carolinas and the northeast, helping storm refugees furnish their shipping containers with cheap, stylish kitchenware and other necessities."


"Nomura Biologics is a big player in the emerging jellyfish derivatives market, providing feedstocks for the food, pharmaceuticals, and fine chemicals markets."


Also for 2023:

"Demi Moore's Law continues to hold true in the solar industry."

"Rose's Law continues to hold true for quantum processors. Ghost-thread spoofing has taken the place of encryption as the standard for data protection, with a mean protection time of two weeks."


Any sentences with the following words ....

aha moment; bucket list; cloud computing; earworm; energy drink; f-bomb; man cave; mankini; sexting; bling; bromance; frankenfood; illiterati


I wanted to rebut one suggestion someone made in the pre-crash thread:

"Obama's Arab Spring missteps led to Benghazi".

While to be sure this would be opaque to someone in 2003, that's primarily due to the metonymy inherent in headline-ese -- none of the events referred to would be any more surprising to someone ten years in the past than they were to the real people who lived through them.

In other words, it's opaque for exactly the same reasons that "Kennedy's Bay of Pigs missteps led to Missile Crisis" would be in 1953.


By the way, assuming the Cthulhu-esque horror doesn't contain any private information, I suspect you could put it up as a text file somewhere and crowd-sourcing might be able to turn it into something usable.


"Graduating seniors should consider whether it's still worth going to college or not."

That's non-portable as it is; I have no idea what a "graduating senior" is, and on this land mass, a college is not a university (although if you're at one of a small number of universities you may be in a college).


For 2003 anything involving "Fracking". (For 99+% of the population.)

I keep thinking about telling my grandfather about biofuels back in 1991, when he was still alive. I'm from a small town (pop. 25,000) that annually consumes 700.000 tons of wheat - about as much wheat as Norway and more than New Zealand. All that thanks to a bioethanol plant.

Mind you, my grandfather got lucky. He had a leg blown off on the way to Stalingrad and lost use of an arm, he lived the rest of the war on the homefront and also long enough to become my grandfather. With the happy proceedings probably coinciding with the news of the end of the war, judging from the birth of my mother curiously enough 9 month later. From the way he insisted that I eat all the food on my plate, reminding me of the hungry people elsewhere I can only infer those were hard times and I shudder at the thought of what he would say to the biomass craze.

My other grandfather wasn't as lucky and would probably have preferred to pay an arm and a leg in exchange for whatever fate he met.

As for 2023?

How about "UN starts investigation in biofuel famines"? We currently consume about 10% of the global grain production as biofuels. The US is using in excess of 100mio tons of corn for bioethanol. EU figures are much harder to come by, but production there is comparable to the US, although the EU has a penchant for biodiesel and is growing rape-seed instead of grains. But of course, edible crops could be grown there just as well.

The amount of potentially edible produce being used as fuel is thus as large as the total amount of grains currently being imported/exported on world markets. See:

When half the supply suddenly disappears from a market with little change in demand, prices rise. Which is currently blamed on "market speculation". But extreme price increases is exactly what you would expect and they happened concurrently with the initial exponential growth-phase of biofuels starting around 2006/7.

The result is malnutrition rising by at least 100mio people and deaths caused by malnutrition rose from about 15mio per year to 18mio per year. (According to FAO and WHO respectively.) This is still ongoing and I certainly hope that the UN will investigate this much earlier than 2023.


"Saudi man traveling with pressure cooker arrested"

"Experts weigh in on the legality of printed guns"


To unpack this one, there's a lot of media in the US about how:

a) In the US, the cost of college (aka higher education, aka university) has gone sky-high, with student loans now outweighing credit cards as the major form of debt (=unlike credit cards, you can't get out of student loan debt by bankruptcy. Only death will free you, and possibly not even that).

b) Online lectures have become so prevalent that universities are laying off lecturers in favor of online courses, or having local professors tutor and lead discussion sections while better lecturers at other universities deliver the course lectures online (cf: Harvard's accounting courses, which are no longer taught in-house), and

c) Free online education is growing enormously, and schools are finding ways to give credit for completing these free classes, while

d) Many degrees no longer have sufficient earning power to justify the cost of acquiring them, if you look at going to college as a way to increase your lifetime earnings.

With all this, it's unclear whether it's worth going to college/university in the US, because in many fields you can get at least as good an education online, possibly for free, and it's becoming possible to get credit from your company for this type of learning.

This is what happens when disruptive innovation meets higher education at a time when higher education was turning to corporate profiteering. I'm pretty sure colleges will survive, because when you're doing things like dissections, online experience can only take you so far.

Still, higher education is following publishing down the rabbit hole right now.


Sorry I didn't attach this to the previous message, but it could be better summarized for this post as:

"Higher education is facing similar problems to the publishing industry with regards to disruptive innovation."


Which reddit thread was this? I'm looking for it, but I can't seem to find it...


With all this, it's unclear whether it's worth going to college/university in the US, because in many fields you can get at least as good an education online, possibly for free, and it's becoming possible to get credit from your company for this type of learning

While a lot can depend on the degree and the type of work you look for I heard on the news recently that the unemployment for folks with a 4 year degree or better in the US is around 4% to 5%. Without a degree of any kind, about triple that.

Getting a degree in English (US) lit and applying it to a job at a high tech firm is likely a better future plan than taking the same degree and wanting to teach at a college.


Many of the other sentences provided are also incomprehensible to me. (Though the graduating seniors one is fine; I blame the Internet.) E.g. I know who Kate Middleton is, but I've no idea about Amanda Bynes (or what anti-smurfing is). But, I could easily find out if I cared, isn't the web wonderful.

For 2003, I think we could just go with new discoveries. I'm not sure how many people knew what a Higgs Boson was in 2003 (I probably had heard of it, but, like now, probably couldn't have articulated what it was). Ooh, here's one that's almost incomprehensible, "Americans are continuing to pay Russians to get them to the ISS", or maybe something about the eight planets orbiting the Sun. Here's one that many people won't get even today: 3 May 2012 "In the United Kingdom's first successful ocular implant trial, two men blinded by retinitis pigmentosa have their sight partially restored by prototype microchip implants." Thanks Wikipedia.

For a sentence from 2023, I think the obvious area to go would be environmental catastrophe (and/or the political upheaval the comes with it). We could also look to the past for inspiration. A super-volcano a la Tambora or Krakatoa in Indonesia could rend that country, with at least three regions splitting off in the chaos (West Papua (i.e. the province formally known as Irian Jaya), Aceh, and another that I can't just recall).

What happens in the Middle East when the oil runs out? Saudi Arabia stops being Saudi (and becomes, again, just Arabia), while some of the neighbouring countries snatch chunks of land here and there (having been smart enough to invest in their people, rather than just keeping them under the heel of the twin evils of fundamentalist religion and absolute government).

OK, I can't just think of any sentences specifically around these scenarios, but hopefully this will provide inspiration for someone else.


That's non-portable as it is; I have no idea what a "graduating senior" is, and on this land mass, a college is not a university (although if you're at one of a small number of universities you may be in a college).

In very rough terms.

A graduating senior is someone finishing up their 12/13 years of public education and getting ready to graduate from "high school". Usually grade 12. Starts at age 5/6 and finishes at about age 18. Grade 0 is called K for kindergarden.

Default next step is college. Over here (there may be a few exceptions) after high school you go to college if pursuing a 4 year degree. In very simplistic terms universities are collections of colleges united under a common banner. Colleges are specialties like engineering, dramatic arts, business, liberal arts, etc...

On a side note there used to be not too long ago and may still be distinctive flavors to Comp Sci degree programs depending on if they started out of the Math department or Engineering department.


Here's one that many people won't get even today: 3 May 2012 "In the United Kingdom's first successful ocular implant trial, two men blinded by retinitis pigmentosa have their sight partially restored by prototype microchip implants."

As my mother was diagnosed with RP more than 20 years ago (not blind, thankfully), I'd have had no problem with that, or the Higgs. But then, I'm a science junkie, and read SF--like most of the commenters here, I imagine.


There are bound to be ones that involve food, at least as far as the greater part of the population is involved.

Perhaps "Popularity of Spelt and Quinoa rising."


Oh darn. Let me see if I can reconstruct. I once tried the experiment with a Louis CK comedy routine about everyday life as a single working father in New York City. I believe the most recently coined word was "paranoia". Even so, it would have been utterly alien -- and unbelievably blue -- by the standards of New York City 1963. He makes Lenny Bruce sound like a choirboy, but it's the content that would make no sense. He's perfectly aware of this change; he's a little bit of an outsider: a pale redheaded Mexican-American, first language Spanish, with a Hungarian last name (Szekely, hence CK). Here's his routine on being white with a time machine, and his routine on how everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Fingers crossed that they work outside the US.


Well, my favorite 2012 headline of this kind, utterly incomprehensible even 5 years ago, is

"Moscow Police Clear 'Occupy Abai' Encampment"

10 years ago there were neither Occupy movements nor police in Russia (police was called Militia), and Abai is not a place, it is a name (of the man around whose statue the camp was centered).


"The doors needed booting after the firewall crash".

  • Local incident, the servers have water-cooled doors. With embedded heat monitors of course. Oh, and we need to upgrade the firmware in the cables, too, as we move to FDR infiniband.

"That LOLCATS thing on your Facebook was totes amazeballs."

10 years is several epochs ago on the internet.


For 2013 vs 2003 how about "Sorry I'm late. Forgot to charge my phone and got lost". The causal link between no-phone and no-map would have been lost to most of the 2003 crowd.

For 2023 vs 2013 how about "Lead survivor wins glassing discrimination case. Gov.UK to appeal."

Unpacked as:

"Lead survivor"

The causal link between lead levels and criminal behaviour becomes generally accepted. Cleaning up lead contamination becomes a national issue. After various campaigns "lead survivor" becomes the label applied to people who have grown up with lead-related damage. Various countries treat them in different ways. In the UK they get special tax credits and a low-level ongoing payment similar to the old DLA if they agree to compulsory augmented therapy or "glassing" as it's known in the vernacular.


Over the next few years we see the rise of Augmented Therapy - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy crossed with Fitocracy crossed with your mobile / Google glasses.

CBT comes out as more effective than drugs against many mental illnesses. As phones/glasses grew more sensors and intelligence over the next ten years you get "live" CBT based on your stress levels, environment, etc. Points for relaxing in stressful situations, etc. Things like grow into fitocracy type environments for mental health and help start removing the stigma from bunch of mental illness - and incidentally save the NHS a stack of cash on expensive drugs.

This gets a tad more questionable when you get court appointed AT. Initially as an alternative to sectioning folk (your glasses phone in if you start looking like you're going to suicide) - and then to early probationer prisoner releases (the glasses will remind you to finish up your job applications, and will shop you if you don't) and then as a prison replacement to low risk prisoners (violate that exclusion zone around your ex and your glasses will have the police with you before you've finished saying "hello").

Despite all the Google's trademark lawyers could do any form of compulsory augmented therapy became known as "glassing" or "being glassed". Especially since the folk who had it were often forced to use the ugly and cheap AR glasses that the government provided.

" to appeal".

Over the next ten years the digital/virtual side of the UK government becomes important enough to have it's own department and minister. It's got a boring official title - but everybody just names it for the website (or rather what the website has grown into).

In this case the discrimination case is being brought by a lead survivor with no criminal record, but who is forced to have AT due to a depressive episode that left her suicidal. She's a qualified lawyer, but wearing glasses prevents certain career choices (e.g. many legal and government offices ban them). sees this as the thin end of the wedge and is fighting it tooth and nail.

.... man... I have just wasted too much time on this .... ;-)


Probably a little dated now, but here's a 2013 sentence:

"Free Beer $8.00 a six pack, while supplies last."


Charlie: That's non-portable as it is; I have no idea what a "graduating senior" is, and on this land mass, a college is not a university (although if you're at one of a small number of universities you may be in a college).

Over here, in 'murica, we tend to use University as "grants postgraduate degrees" and College as "does not grant postgraduate degrees", in the Masters Degree and Doctorate senses.

"Supreme Court rejects Google bid to marry Facebook for taxation, data-sharing rights; union recognised only in Delaware."

Bravo sir! Well played ;)


"First Quarter revenues for the Tentacle Porn declined 10%, the franchise announced Wednesday. A spokesperson blamed the new generation of at-home food printers, which now equal the ones the chain pioneered in 2017 at a cost consumers can afford. Sales of the chain's iconic jellyfish musubi continue, and the firm has failed to introduce a sky prawn product capable of competing with those MacDonalds and others in the fast food sector. Tentacle Porn is predicted to continue contracting through the rest of the fiscal year."


Had I encountered theseheadlines 10 years ago, my WTF?!? meter would have bounced the needle:

"Fearing American advantage, Europe struggles with Fracking Issue"

"Olive Groves and Fracking"

"Township group gathers to discuss anti-Fracking Ordinance"

"Fracking Waste Subject of County Landfill Meeting"

"Fracking the Suburbs: An Explosive Combination?"

"A Fabulous Week for Fracking Sanity"

Each is obvious today, but in 2003 it is likely only those in the oil and gas industry would know about fracking.

Given that selection of headlines, I probably would have guessed that fracking was some sort of recurrence of the Dancing Sickness of the middle ages.

For this exercise I find it interesting that according to the ASPE, the "New Golden Age of Fracking" started in 2003


True, the Battlestar Galactica use of fracking didn't start until 2004.


The better one of my comments went along the line of "The gorror! There was no all-vegan option at the marriage party of Kay, Chris and Alex!"


There was a bit of dodgy farming going on with Spelt in the late Nineties, involving an EU subsidy. I can't recall the details of how the scheme worked, but it was being pushed as an easy profit for a couple of years.


(read "horror" - smartphone related typo, not 2023 slang)


oops, flipped my pedantic switch. Frak goes back to the original series in 1978.


Wikipedia puts it back to the original 1978 Galactica, and gives a list of other uses that includes Babylon 5. Though some other sources say that Babylon 5 used "fraggin"

In the Battlestar Wiki entry for "frack" the word is traced to the Writers Guide of 1978.

You could certainly see this history confusing any 2003 reader who saw the future headlines.


Good to know. I always thought that fracking (for hydraulic fracturing) was a particularly good term, given what it does to groundwater.


ggl lflg dta sawt wrt bhhdng


today: "denialists threatened by science curriculum" would be misunderstood, probably as evolution rather than AGW. Any similar comment would range from misunderstood to incomprehensible. "Chinese panel dumping could boost Australian renewables and save the grid" would make sense only to a few ecogeeks in 2003.

in 2023: "457 bodies blamed for WCL collapse", when the bodies of Chinese construction workers here on the section 457 visa programnme that were secretly dumped into the construction cause part of the fast train track up the west coast of australia to fail.

"boost sat fail fries Nanutarra nautilists" (yes, another headline). Solar power or concentrator satellites used to extend ground-based solar generation time or crop yields require quite precise guidance. Failure could result in multiple suns delivered to quite large areas or very high loads to small ones. In this case a locality in Western Austalia that at ~100m above sea level seems an unlikely place for a boat harbour (we'd need to remove most permanent ice).

Using only words common today: "Dropouts meant we had to abort the ride, then we co-pro'd a movie on the ball during the drop". Viz, unreliable communications meant we couldn't safely skydive from orbit. We used an inflatable orbital rescue ball instead. On the way down we projected video on the walls using personal projectors slaved to a single feed.


(Hope this doesn't crash the server again...)


Most sentences involving Anonymous would be pretty incomprehensible in 2003 (unless they involve acts of petty vandalism only).


I can't think of a phrase right now, but I think CDOs and other financial sca^H^H^Hinstruments would be more understandable now than in 2003.

This all related to the somewhat strange financial markets and their behaviour some years ago. There was more talk about the instruments in 2007-2008 than five years before that, but I'm not sure when the instrument invention really started.


Actually, the Bishop of Stockholm has been living in a registered partnership with another (female) priest for some time now.

And on the 2003 front:

"Report: Algorithm Set Off 'Flash Crash' Amid Stressed Market" (WSJ, 2010).


Even better, and thanks for the correction.

Conversely, I'm not sure the Flash Crash could not be parsed by someone from 2003 or even 1987. I think the bigger sentiment might be along the lines of "they're stupid enough to let computers do what?" This is pretty much where we are today with the sub-millisecond trading market.


Here's a possible headline from 2023:

"General Nutrition Centers to Stock 100% Certified Organic Fecal Intestinal Microbiome Supplements in Suppository Form."

As for deconstruction:

"General Nutrition Centers" is a chain of stores that sells various food supplements including "Super Digestive Enzymes" and "Probiotics" for "Cleansing and Digestion".

"Intestinal Microbiome" is the set of microbes living in your intestine. Just-published research has shown, for instance, has shown that gut bacteria may contribute to heart disease by fermenting chemicals in eggs and red meat into another chemical, TMAO, which seems to cause hardening of the arteries. Source --

Sample quote:

Perhaps more importantly, the work focuses attention on the that humans have with the microbes that inhabit our bodies.
"They require us," Hazen says. "We require them. And we have co-evolved over the eons together. And they play an essential role in eating and digestion but no one had really appreciated until very recently that they also can sometimes participate in disease processes."

"Fecal Supplements" - related to this, a recent study has shown that fecal transplants (yuk!) from a healthy person to a person with a C. Diff infection can often cure the infection. Source --

Put all this together and it's quite possible that we could see supplements containing ideal gut bacteria for sale. 100% organic (because 100% organic is always good right?). In suppository form. From GNC.


The basic idea is not very new. I have seen references to it being around before WW2, and have a vague recollection of some miracle digestive cure purporting to be gut bacteria from Bulgarian peasants.

There is that yogurt with the "right" bacteria, but getting them through the stomach is the trick, I suppose.


Working backwards, a phrase from the Thirties that was so incomprehensible by the Fifties that Mad Magazine repeatedly used it as a running joke:

"It's crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide."


"getting them through the stomach is the trick, I suppose." -- that's why the supplement would be in suppository form.

Related to this, how about these possible 2023 headlines:

"Apple Opens First Probiotic Petting Cafe for Pregnant Employees" -- an extrapolation of the following: plus and

"Ikea Markets New Probiotic-Friendly Cribs With Integrated Bacterial Terrarium for Conditioning of Baby's Immune Health" -- an extrapolation of

"School Board Updates List of Required Intestinal Bacteria and Fecal Testing Schedule". It's already common for school boards to require certain vaccines ( so why not certain gut bacteria?


Also interesting are the future sentences people think they understand but don't. You might call a certain character a "retail associate" but gradually reveal that their circumstances have gradually been reduced to serfdom and they can't legally leave the store without permission.


Um no.

a) that's already here, with the probiotics silliness. I'll explain why it's silly below, but it won't be new.

b) fecal transplants are actually much quicker and simpler--you get poop from a healthy donor, quickly process it in a dedicated hood (sometimes in a dedicated lab), and transplant it into the patient ASAP. The issue with gut bacteria is that many of them are anaerobic, so they'll die if exposed to the air for too long. Freshness is the key here, and stuff sitting on shelves is going to be pretty worthless. Certainly, lactobacillus supplements are fine, but you might as well make your own yogurt if you want to go that route.

Here's my take for 2023: "Freezers and guts now the hottest areas in ecology and evolution."

Here's why (and you can check out, among others for some current projects):

1) Guts are complicated. Just getting a full list of what's in a human gut is very tricky. This is one reason why probiotics make me giggle. People have been introducing readily cultivated plants to wild systems for millennia, and many of our best weeds are the result of such efforts. The only thing new about probiotics is the scale of the critters. Otherwise, it's a neolithic business model of introducing new critters into wild ecosystems and trying to profit thereby.

2) Bacteria evolve quickly. According to what I heard in class back in the 90s, a researcher reported evolution in his own gut, simply by culturing his own toilet paper week after week. Hard to tell if this was evolution or invasion, but we're talking about things that evolve or invade in the course of weeks to months, not decades. This is another reason why standardized probiotics make me giggle.

3) Guts are islands. One of the great theories of ecology is the theory of island biogeography, which explains the flora and fauna of islands (basically, smaller, more isolated islands have fewer species, and those that make it there tend to disperse well). The human gut is pretty similar to an island, with the exception that a) there are billions of guts, b) their biomes evolve pretty quickly, and c) there's medical money to study them, where there's no money to study endangered species on macroscopic islands. So if you want to do community ecology and get butt-loads of money for doing it, team up with a doctor or go study gastroenterology yourself.

4) Doctors, in general, are clueless about ecology. Their prescriptions for dealing with invasive bacteria (like C. diff. gut infections) are precisely analogous to the guys who sprayed DDT to control mosquitoes, with identical results (evolution of resistance to control methods). Ironically, the ecologists, especially those dealing with weeds, now have a whole toolkit for dealing with these issues. The doctors I've pointed this out to have been arrogantly dismissive of this, certain that they know better than any non-doctor, and lacking even the conceptual toolkit to realize what I'm talking about. Therefore, it's trivially easy to predict that, in 10 years or so, doctors will discover ecology, and make all sorts of great discoveries that the weed ecologists actually made 30-50 years ago. One of them might even get a Nobel Prize for it.

5) Freezers and fridges are islands too, if you think about it. An old fridge is probably a great place to study dispersal and evolution. If it's used for long-term storage, so much the better. Again, there's money to study the spread of pathogens across our food distribution channels, where there's no money to study weeds until they become serious problems. Therefore, I suspect more ecologists will start working in fridges, grocery stores, and restaurants to study how organisms disperse and evolve in isolation.


So here are a few technologies I figure I might have to explain to my kids at some point:

Telefax, Telegraph, Postage stamps, Cheques (as long as I do not move to the US), Postal Orders, Polaroid, Typewriter, Video cassette (incl. VHS, betaMax, Video2000) Cassette Tape, Photography film, incl. development, I hear open fireplaces are becoming illegal in some places, cigarette vending machines, cigarette lighters (especially in cars), ash trays (also in cars), floppy disks, album records, incandescent light bulbs, Phone books.

I realize that these are not sentences, but they might make nice artefacts.


I would suggest as an antidote to the current MOOC hysteria.

Regarding the original question about incomprehensibility, it seems difficult to find concepts outside popular culture, technology, and current affairs. These are almost by definition the subjects which undergo sufficient churn to qualify for the 10-year rule.

One possibility might be to look for things that were common ten years ago, but which we find incomprehensible now. Since both endpoints are known, one can hope for some accuracy in identifying categories of concepts that do churn. Looking back, rather than forward, should also exclude all the obvious techno-pop-political churn.

This then suggests: ways of interacting with social institutions (filling in forms on paper vs. online?, changes in legislation), social norms about informal business conversations (greetings, goodbyes, body language picked up from celebrities), assumptions about universal services (the NHS, the Food Standards Agency).

(In contrast to this dry dissection of the semantics, I really liked the "glassing discrimination case" in @40.)


It's all tech, pop culture, or particular events. So if you want to imagine future sentences, know what events they're influenced by

Sentence from 2053:

The Rough Tunnel rain might just keep us going, if we can build enough rosmem to clear it.

Which is part tech : "rosmem" = reverse osmosis membrane, add power and it converts brackish/salt/contaminated water to pure. It's a substance because you just stretch it across a frame of some kind; and part event: the Rough Tunnel is the valley that the Indians dig through the Himalayan Plateau when their country gets uninhabitable. Since they use fusion demo charges for a lot of it, you get lots of dust in the high atmosphere, which buys the world a couple of years of cooling but means you've got to filter your irrigation water if you want to eat your crops. Biofuels are a fallback, but people don't pay as much for a BTU of radioactive diesel as for two BTUs of edible wheat.

Might be a 2043 sentence, but I think 2033 is a little early.


Probably not understandable in 2003: "No statutory vape."

Context: part of a sign at the Uptown Vapor Shoppe in Minneapolis, warning that they card (check IDs to be sure customers are legally old enough.) They sell e-cigarettes.


...the Indians dig through the Himalayan Plateau when their country gets uninhabitable. Since they use fusion demo charges for a lot of it, you get lots of dust in the high atmosphere, which buys the world a couple of years of cooling but means you've got to filter your irrigation water if you want to eat your crops.

Off-topic, plowshare blasts probably wouldn't throw up enough dust for that; they were done underground. (Some did kick up stuff - including one where steam blasted up over the press gallery. Oops!) Ground bursts seem more effective at producing atmospheric dust, but doing climate modification that way would probably annoy the neighbors. grin

Bringing us back on topic: Climate Guerrilla Burst in Siberia!


For present-day expressions incomprehensible in the past, how about the way fanfiction terms have been incorporated into literary criticism?

Akhilles/Patroclus is my canon OTP, but don't you think Aeneas is a total Gary Stu?


2003: Stream the next webisode of YouTube star Honeybadger on yor iOS tablet.

2033: President Kurzweil relaxes rules for joining delta level Convergence processor for those whose implantation of conscience-control neuron enhancement compiler was accelerated by Jovian virus unintentionally introduced into sub-Antarctic refugee population. Such individuals no longer offer a threat as did their predecessors who kept invading the private regeneration modules built into Subjective-C compilers for sentience control required to make shared consciousness possible without psychotic meta-episodes that lead to the collapse of half the population in 2023.


Mod parent up.

Interesting how the suggestions converged onto two or three topics.

We are ignorant of the complexity of our own digestive processes, but in a few years that will change.

Likewise, the complexity of arable soil -- but the monstrous farming monopolies at work here in the US will suppress any attempt to learn more about real dirt.

Also, fresh water will become ever more dear.


Boggling future headlines that I hope don't come about:

"Summer Antarctic Ice Spotted!"

  • A new Greenhouse breakthrough, of course ;-)

"See the sea of Trinitite!"

  • from the Barsoom Times: The rovers Gaia and Terra have successfully landed in an attempt to debunk the Pre-Martian Civilisation Myth. Watch the green, glassy livestream.

OK, so there are probably far too intelligible as well as far too distant.


I re-read Adam Smith's "Powers of Mind" today and came across this:

"Successful heads of corporations already operate at Satori 24. They are joyfully locked into their work." -- John Lilly, 1973

Comprehensible to the minority who know the word "satori". But is there anyone on the planet today who could come up with that?

And incidentally, can psychopaths achieve satori?


News Corp threatens to move Fox to cable-only channel if Aereo isn't shut down


"Another sick session at @Wakedock, great weather and did the kicker today, got some sweet amount of air off it! :)" - A tweet by @jwhelton I saw this morning. I think it's a skating thing, from the 'sweet air' reference.


Wakeboarding; as waterskiing is to skiing, so wakeboarding is to snowboarding. A kicker is a ramp.


That's true in the technical sense, but most people refer to "college" as any sort of post-secondary institution. "My boy just went to college," not "My boy just went to university." Say the latter with an American accent and you just sound pompous.



Take the sentence from your post: "I can't get a 4G signal here, I'll skype you on my droid as soon as I hit a hotspot, I need a coffee anyway."

Change it to: "I don't have enough wireless bandwidth here, I'll video call you from my pocket-phone as soon as I get close enough to a relay, I need a coffee anyway."

Both sentences convey a sense of the future. The latter one, though, is immediately comprehensible to somebody from 1950. Except perhaps for the fact that they sell coffee near wireless relays.

"Department of Homeland Security proposes relaxing ban on toenail clippers" and "Hello, I'm on the train!" are other examples a sentences containing no new nomenclature but very new concepts.

As a professional science fiction writer, how do you decide between describing the futuristic concept in comprehensible language (but without the context) and inventing plausible (but essentially random) new nomenclature?


You are correct: I am 100% positive that the Flash Crash would be easy to explain to somebody in 1987. Program trading already existed, and many were implicating it in the '87 meltdown.


Heard on NPR the other day: "The Kickstarter for her most recent album was so successful, she gave a TED Talk on it."


The flipped version is similar to the scheme of a character in Lem's "The Futurological Congress": he would create {Dadaist poem}-like phrases, eliminate the ones that actually meant something now, and (I think) select for the most euphonious, or at least easy to say. Then he would figure out what those phrases could possibly mean....

Hmmm, using and one of your first paragraphs:

horizon culture in range: ban wrt. future International treaties to try to avoid a 'cultural event horizon' preceding a full Singularity

Security toenail from Cultural Super-high-tech anarcho-communism enabled by chips under the big toenail?


"Austerity poses an imminent, existential threat to the American people."

It doesn't seem so long ago since I first encountered the contemporary use of 'austerity' as a euphemism for 'swingeing cuts in public spending' as opposed to an ascetic lifestyle choice or an unfortunate state of deprivation possibly glamourized in retrospect ('Dig for Britain' and whatnot). I'd imagine that someone from a decade or so ago would likely have been unable to interpret the above correctly; and an intelligent reader, if pushed to give meaning to it, might have imagined it to be some kind of satirical statement mocking American consumerism.


Reading through the suggestions above... Many seem to be things one could have understood even without the tech or circumstances being familiar (like the reference to getting to Mars with 3-d printed food; it'd sound far-fetched, but not incomprehensible).

Neologisms and references to people and events are a bit cheaty, really, no? It's most effective when a word has one meaning to the present reader but another to a future reader, or where a new word provides inaccurate clues to the real meaning (like the reference to a 'droid' - if it were an entirely novel word, the reader could frankly admit to ignorance. 'Droid' would actively mislead and confuse).


"New Orleans has recovered half of population lost in 2005"

"Four Americans killed by U.S. drone strikes, administration discloses"

"Second Star Trek movie 'not that great'"


Another 2013 headline that wouldn't make much sense to 2003 folk (or, indeed, folk outside of the UK).

"RSPCA has called for 'badger-friendly' labels on milk and yogurt"

( for those outside the UK for context ).


Charlie, you should read The Unwinding, by George Packer.

I recommend the book in general. But for the purposes of this thread, I strongly recommend pages 7, 35, 69, 107, 137, 155, 217, 297, and 379.

I strongly recommend those pages to each and every reader of this thread.


2023 Headline:

Bioprinter clones TatID in cybernap.

That is - crooks steal a person's identity, including financial accounts and access to services, by printing a copy of the 'identity tattoo' complete with skin.



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