Anthropomorphism & British Weather

“What’s your name” Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” [Neil Gaiman, Coraline]

My brother and sister-in-law were recently driving me to my local train station after a brief trip home to South Wales over the Christmas period. I was idly checking the rail app on my phone to determine whether or not any of the services I hoped to access that day had been cancelled: Storm Frank was hitting the UK in a big way, particularly the North of England, putting areas like Cumbria under siege from torrential rain and winds, and flooding. “Some weather we’ve been having recently, isn’t it?” My brother said, as I half-tuned in to the conversation. “I’d swear it’s got worse since they started giving them names.”

Later that day, as I was passing through the Welsh Marches, I read an article on The Guardian website that seemed to reiterate what my brother had put voice to a few hours earlier. In an article entitled Does a storm cause more or less pain if it has a human name? the writer laid out the history of the naming of storms.

According to the weather historian Philip Eden, the very first person to do so was an expatriate British meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who was in charge of the Queensland state meteorological department during the late 19th century and gave names to tropical cyclones to make them more memorable.

But it was not until the late 1940s that his counterparts in the US realised that names were far easier to remember than the standard convention, which simply used the year and a specific number. Giving each individual storm a name – which was made official in 1953 – made a lot of sense in a country where more than one major weather event can occur at the same time.

At first, the convention was to use female names. But from the late 1970s onwards, after protests against sexism, male names were finally added to the list.

Putting aside the innate sexism involved in only giving storms female names (women being, of course, temperamental and destructive in their worst moods) it seems a very American thing to do, to name a weather front: the Met Office, however, has begun to do the same. And so far we have had the likes of Abigail, Barney, Desmond and Frank, determinedly prosaic names, to draw our attention to them in a way which, to my mind, seems to heighten their importance whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are not important. It’s not simply another rainy day: it’s Storm Abigail, tearing up the Welsh coastline, or Storm Frank, battering the already beleaguered citizens of York.

When we name something, we attempt to exert authority over it. In America, so sayeth The Guardian article, the naming of different weather systems was so as to differentiate one from another in a country where many different weather systems proliferate. What is the reason for doing so in the UK?

I could look to Bourdieu and suggest that the naming of things like storms is simply another form of social classification: after all, as Bourdieu says:

principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups…What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilisation and demobilisation. [479]

Bourdieu talks about “occupational titles”, the selection of labels intended to increase social recognition. In giving the storms a name, then, we are enhancing their status as something to be considered important. Conversely, however, their labels are almost embarrassingly pedestrian. What does this suggest? That storms are meant to appeal to the bourgeoise, to the Abigails and Franks of the world; an acceptable conversational topic in a world often agonisingly on the brink of some huge conflict. Or that in giving them these conventional names we are at one and the same time implying importance and removing it. And who names the storms? Who has power over their classification?

Bourdieu said that culture is often popularised to appeal to the masses, and that cultural artefacts which stem from “pop” culture are decried as of less importance than “proper” culture. I wonder, then, in this age of fracking and increasingly bad weather inextricably linked by many to climate change, the naming of these storms is meant to undermine their importance in some way, to make us think that they’re not significant?

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy a magician’s power comes from his knowledge of the names of things like, for example:

The true name of the falcon, to which falcon must come…for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. [46-47]

And the importance of naming things is not lost in the digital, either, because the correct name can mean the difference between an effective resource and an underused one. A programmer’s power is therefore no different to that of a wizard, if we say code is a variation of the Old Speech [Le Guin, 46-47].

In The Power of Names: In Culture and in MathematicsLoren Graham, a Professor of History of Science Emeritus at MIT, discusses the concept of naming in Mathematics.

The great Russian-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, still alive but no longer active as a mathematician, put a heavy emphasis on “naming” as a way to gain cognitive power over mathematical objects even before they have been understood. One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had an air for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as an integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Mathematicians occasionally observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition; these concepts must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. Naming can be the path toward that control. [p.231]

Names, then, are important things. They can mean social status, and a way of giving understanding to the ineffable. They can mean the difference between the success and failure of an endeavour (who amongst us hasn’t spend hours agonising of the title of a journal article or essay?). They can mean the difference between magic and mundanity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even just be names.

If you were wondering, my train wasn’t cancelled.


John Naughton’s Top 10 books about the Internet

John Naughton is the author of the excellent A Brief History of The Future (which was the first book I picked up when beginning my research into the digital humanities) and has recently published From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet (which is awaiting me on my desk at home). Here is a list of the books he says we should be reading about the internet. 

Get to it!

We’re all Domed!

Two things I have read today which have piqued my interest. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts with you on them.

The first is this article I’ve discovered on the Guardian website entitled “Digital Domesday Book Lasts 15 not 1000 years”, written in 2002. In it, they discuss the dire state of the Domesday Project, an ambitious enterprise embarked upon by the BBC and published on “interactive videodisc” in which the “Domesday philosophy” was used to take a look at modern Britain – Britain as it was in 1986. The project was ambitious in scope and provided a wealth of information on that particular point in history (900 years after the original Domesday Book).

It was meant to be a showcase for Britain’s electronic prowess – a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book.”, intoned the Guardian’s erstwhile journo, “But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable

The problem is that technology superceded our best intentions. As the Domesday Project’s own website says, “It was impracticable to consider using CD-ROM alone, because it had, and still has, a limited capacity for pictures and, in any case, we are talking about a time before High Sierra (the original CD-ROM filing system), let alone ISO 9660 and JPEG”, and so they relied upon a combination of video disc and floppy disc. In 2002, we were approaching a point where the thousands upon thousands of words and images captured by the people of Britain in 1986 were on the verge of becoming lost to us – something which, the journalist wryly commented, was not a danger with the original Domesday Book, which some 900 years on was still as hale and hearty as it ever was.

From my brief reading today it appears that the digital Domesday Book was eventually lost to the general public, and can be seen as a “salutary lesson in technology creep”. There are elements of this to be seen in the story of the digital Hengwrt Chaucer. Whilst we are not at a stage where the information obtained from the original manuscript will be lost to us we are well advanced in our own case of “technolog[ical] creep”. I can’t remember the last time I accessed a CD-ROM. In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever used one was when someone gave me a copy of Encarta, which I used on my Commodore 64 (I feel as old as Methuselah – I suppose in technological terms I might as well be).

We have to consider what happens when we digitise these items, what happens once the project comes to an end; we need to keep looking with fresh eyes, ensuring that they aren’t lost to us. And I suppose this also ties in with availability, and who’s using the item; the more popular they are, the better maintained they’ll (hopefully) be. In the case of the Domesday Project the BBC disbanded the original team (which is a polite way of saying they were made redundant) in the early 90’s, and the project appears to have slipped thereafter into a terminal decline.

The second article I read today was on a speech given by Chris Poole, the founder of “hacker website” 4Chan, in which he addressed our concerns about online identity. He said that essentially we’re getting it wrong. “Google and Facebook would have you believe identity is like a mirror” he said, when in actual fact we are multi-faceted, like diamonds, and our online identities should reflect that. Twitter, he says, is getting it halfway right, by allowing us to choose a user name, and to not make anonymity something sinister. We need a “more flexible view of identity”.

I’ve always, quite unconsciously, adhered to the Facebook concept of identity – everything I put online should reflect me, under my name, for good or for ill. However, as I’ve grown older and my professional status has changed, it has become ever more apparent that there is not simply one reflection of me; I am several people, and I need several online identities to reflect that. And not all of them should necessarily be identifiable as me. Why should they, after all?

I was very resistant to the idea at first, however, because it felt like a falsehood. To even imply that there are aspects of my personality that are not fit for general consumption makes me sound slightly sinister, like Mr Hyde or Margaret Thatcher. However, I now have a clear delineation between my private and the professional personas, which I think is fair and healthy – something that Chris Poole would allow us, and Mr Zuckerberg would not. I am a multi-faceted diamond – or at least, that’s what my Mum always tells me.