One of the reasons for the dearth of posts lately is that I took a trip back to the UK to visit friends and family. In short, I went on vacation. My wife and I stayed with my parents who happen to live “off the grid” – which means they have no Internet access, and as a result of this, I was also disconnected from the wired world. Now although this may seem a little unusual these days, it is precisely how a vacation was supposed to work just a mere 25 years ago, before we all voluntarily allowed ourselves to be electronically manacled by our bosses and friends using a mobile phone. When George Orwell wrote 1984 and predicted the hell of a world where Big Brother would be constantly watching us, he failed to realize that this wouldn’t come about by the cruel jack-boot of a dictatorship but a voluntary submission to private corporations whose technology not only lets us be tracked but for which we pay a handsome premium! It’s as if we not only invited Big Brother to live in our houses but paid him for doing it.
There is now technology available that can be worn and which records your everyday life. The Autographer, slated for a November 2012 release, is a wearable camera that automatically takes up to 2,000 pictures a day, and with a 136 degree lens, it’s able to take in a fair amount of the wearer’s immediate environment – including you if you happen to be around.
And the Memoto, expected to ship in February 2013, is another wearable camera that snaps an image every 30 seconds and uses GPS to tag where the photos are taken.
So imagine a world where we all have one of these to record our lives, and by extension, the lives of everyone we meet. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy or a neo-Luddite, but I find that vision somewhat scary. We pretty much end up living in an electronic goldfish bowl where everything we ever do and say becomes embedded in some unaccountable cloud-based “world memory” that never gets erased. And even if you opt-out and say, “I refuse to wear one,” how do you stop your interactions with all the folks who are using them?
If you do 35 mph at 3:00 am on an empty street where the limit is 25 mph, is a crime committed if no-one sees you? Well, in the goldfish world, yes! If your camera is on, you are the seeds of your own destruction, especially if your “crime” is backed up by your GPS data, and supported by the street cameras that seem to be popping up all over the world.
So we are slowly giving up our privacy, slice by salami slice, of our own free will because we want “cool technology” and “instant, constant communication,” until one day we realize that our lives are little more than live action reality TV shows streaming over the Internet to anyone who cares to watch – and judge.
All of this thinking was precipitated during my UK trip following my attempt to fill up my rental car with petrol – as those funny Brits like to refer to gas. I say “attempt” because when I tried to pay using my US debit card, the petrol station’s technology turned it down. I had to whip out a credit card to assuage the demands of BP’s point-of-sale system. I was also aware of the fact that not only was my location now “known” to the bank, but the cameras inside and outside of the petrol station were recording my every move. I guess it’s only paranoia when they’re not out to get you!
Petrol is a shortened form of the word petroleum, defined in the sense of fuel for cars as;
A light fuel oil made by distilling petroleum and used in internal-combustion engines, esp. in motor vehicles.
It’s first recorded use as such tool place in 1895 in a book by D. Salmons entitled Horseless Carriage where he says, “Benzine of a certain density, known in France under the name of essence de pétrol, …is the material employed to run the engines.”
Prior to this, petroleum was the word used to refer more generally to;
A viscous liquid, consisting chiefly of a mixture of hydrocarbons and varying in colour from black or dark brown to light yellow, that is formed by the decomposition of organic matter buried in sediments, is present in some rock formations (sometimes seeping out on to the ground), and is extracted and refined to produce fuels (esp. petrol, paraffin, and diesel) and other substances; mineral oil.
It appears in Old English as petraoleum and derives from the post-classical Latin, petroleum, which means “mineral oil,” i.e. oil from rocks. The Old English actually does a good job of revealing the more detailed etymology, with the first element, petra, being the classical Latin for “rock,” and the second part, oleum, being the word for “oil.” Hence the notion of oil from rocks. We can trace petra even further back to the Ancient Greek πέτρa that also means “rock.”
Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks differentiated between πέτρa as the generic material and πέτρος, which refers to “a stone for throwing.” The Greeks even had the word πετροβόλος for “the act of throwing stones.” Now, back in 1973, linguist J. Peter Maher wrote a paper with the fabulous title of “Neglected Reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *pet– “fly”: Greek petros “stone” / petra “cliff”; with notes on the role of syntax (IC structure) in polysemy and semantic change, and the situational motivation of syntax.”  What he suggests is that the same Indo-European root word, *pet-, that gave rise to the throwable stone was also the source of the word feather, from where the sense of a stone flying through the air comes from.
Who would have thought! And if anyone comes across a pub called The Stone and Feather, please let me know. Alternatively, if you want to open a new pub called The Stone and Feather, I’d be happy to come along and provide a linguistic opening.
 The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as 1977 in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 3, where the article does indeed appear, but it was actually written in 1973 and appeared in the journal Lingua e Stile, 8, 3, 403-417. A minor point but I just wanted to point it out in the interest of accuracy and provenance.