The inexorable march of B.C. Hydro's smart meters into Richmond has begun. Mine has already been installed, and while I like having a meter that is easier to read than the old one (though B.C. Hydro's solution was not the only possibility), I don't feel comfortable with the idea that the meter is smart. One of the first instances of the use of the word smart to describe a device "of seemingly intelligent and independent action" (as the Oxford Dictionaries Online write) was the expression "smart bomb", back in 1972. Smart devices and objects have since moved from the battle field into our daily lives (e.g. smart cards, smart fridges), a process of infiltration that is still gathering momentum.
Smart is one of those words that has stretched, but never become fully detached, from its origins. Its roots are in the Old English verb "smeortan", which is related to the German "schmerzen", to pain or hurt. Used as a modifier, it meant, in the Old English sense, sharp, biting, stinging, in other words causing pain. Out of these grew the additional senses of keen, vigorous, brisk, sprightly, quick, clever and stylish.
The smart devices now controlling various aspects of our existence are supposed to be smart in the sense of mentally sharp. Once upon a time, when mental sharpness was a quality restricted to human beings (and, some would argue, a few creatures in the animal kingdom), the English language had a handful of words to describe this trait. Mentally sharp people (and creatures) were also referred to as clever, a word whose origins are not entirely clear, though they are probably Dutch or Old High German and related to our English verb cleave. In the eighteenth century, the word bright was used to denote mental quickness, often with reference to children. It is an appealing word, which comes to me with the mental image of a light illuminating the caverns of the mind.
When we call a person intelligent, we are stating that he is knowledgeable or learned. Intelligence comes directly from the Latin "intelligentia", meaning insight, knowledge, understanding. A certain amount of brain power is required to process knowledge, and thus intelligent people are sometimes called brainy. They are also called intellectuals or highbrows, the latter (which was first used in 1911) implying that they have big brains and therefore a high forehead.
Egghead is another word that describes an intellectual. Originally egghead referred to a bald person, and it was extended to mean intelligent because baldness was once taken to be a sign of great brain power. Presumably, then, eggheads are male. But females have their own brand of intellectuals, the blue-stockings, a name that derives from the habit of a member of an eighteenth century literary society to wear stockings made of blue wool rather than the usual black silk.
The Old Norse word "visdomr" is at the root of our word wisdom, which describes a quality that we associate with learning. But wisdom is also (and perhaps more importantly) the capacity of humans for sound judgement, good sense and prudence. A wise person is the opposite of a foolish one. Synonyms for wise in modern English are sagacious and sage; the noun is sagacity. However, their proper meaning is slightly, but significantly, different from that of wise and wisdom. The root of sagacious and sagacity is in the Latin "sagacitas", which denotes mental acuteness or sharpness.
And that brings me back to smart meters and other mentally sharp devices. The advantages are for the benefit of us, the 'good guys', correct? But what happens when the smart devices are outsmarted by devices that want to turn the benefits over to someone else? Will sagacity or wisdom then prevail?
This page last updated: November 19, 2011.