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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

hard-wired

(1980’s | computerese? | “innate,” “(pre-)programmed,” “fixed,” “unalterable”)

The hard-wired smoke detector was already around in 1980; in that sense the term has not changed meaning since. “Hard-wired” meant connected directly to the building’s electrical system, meaning it was not powered by batteries, meaning that it would not infallibly begin making horrible chirping noises one morning at 3:00 and resist every sleep-fogged effort to silence it. A hard-wired telephone was similar in that it was harder to disconnect than the standard model you plug into a wall jack (already common in my youth, though far from universal). The cord connected to the system inside the wall rather than on the outside. Cable television might be hard-wired in that the cables connected to the source physically entered your house and attached themselves to a television set. Computer scientists had been using the term before that, generally to mean something like “automatic” or “built-in” — the only way to change it is to make a physical alteration to part of the equipment — and it remained firmly ensconced in the technical realm until the eighties. That’s when “hard-wired” became more visible, as computer jargon was becoming very hip. (PCMAG offers a current set of computer-related definitions.) In computer lingo, “hard-wired” came to mean “part of the hardware,” so “soft-wired” had to follow to describe a capability or process provided by software.

My father, erstwhile electrical engineer, pointed out that in his world, “hard-wired” was the opposite of “programmable.” In other words, the hard-wired feature did what it did no matter what; it couldn’t be changed simply by revising the code. Yet you don’t have to be too careless to equate “hard-wired” with “programmed” (see above) in the sense of predetermined. It’s not contradictory if you substitute “re-programmable” for “programmable,” but that requires an unusual level of precision, even for a techie. Every now and then you find odd little synonym-antonym confusions like that.

Still in wide technical use, this expression has reached its zenith in the soft sciences, in which it is commonly used to mean “part of one’s make-up,” with regard to instincts, reflexes, and basic capacities (bipedal walking, language, etc.), and more dubiously to describe less elemental manifestations such as behavior, attitude, or world-view. “Hard-wired” is not a technical term in hard sciences such as genetics or neurology. The usefulness of the expression is open to question: one team of psychologists noted, “The term ‘hard-wired’ has become enormously popular in press accounts and academic writings in reference to human psychological capacities that are presumed by some scholars to be partially innate, such as religion, cognitive biases, prejudice, or aggression . . . remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression” (citation). Scientists may sniff at the term as used in pop psychology, but it does make for easy shorthand and probably won’t go away any time soon.

The reason we take so easily to applying the term “hard-wired” to the brain is that the computer, as developed over the last fifty years, forms the most comprehensive map yet for the workings of our minds. A contributing reason is the very common, casual linking of brain activity with electricity, as in referring to one’s “wiring” — even though one may also refer to one’s “chemistry” to explain mental quirks, probably a superior explanation. Watching a computer “think” helps us understand how our brains work, or maybe it just misleads us, causing us to disregard our own observations in order to define our own mentation with reference to the computer’s processing. There are obvious connections and obvious divergences; surely any device we concoct must reflect the workings of our own minds. But computers aren’t just for playing solitaire, calculating your tax refund, running a supercollider. They serve a humanistic function by giving us new ways to think about the old ways we think.

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