The 2011 Name of the Year
With thanks for a great year in names,
FOLLOWUP -- Here's an alternate, expanded version of the piece that appears at Slate, introducing (and making the case for) the Name of the Year.
And the 2011 Name of the Year is:
Siri is a Nordic girl’s name, a pet form of Sigrid. In Scandinavia it’s familiar as both a nickname and given name, common among babies and grown women alike. Think of it as a Nordic counterpart to our name Annie.
In the English-speaking world, though, the name Siri used to be virtually unknown. That all changed in 2011, but with a twist. English speakers now know the name Siri, but they don’t think of it as human…quite.
Siri is the name of an artificial intelligence system built into the latest version of the Apple iPhone. A virtual personal assistant, Siri is designed to help you find information relevant to your personal needs and navigate life's daily tasks. That’s what Siri does, but the key is how: via spoken conversation. Siri’s interaction, like its -- sorry, like “her” name, blurs the line between the human and the computer-generated. And that makes Siri the 2011 Name of the Year.
The annual honoree is a one-name time capsule, showing us how names are woven into the fabric of society, connecting to and reflecting everything that goes on in our culture. Past Names of the Year include names of people real (Barack), fictional (Renesmee), conceptual (Joe, as in Joe Six-pack and Joe the Plumber), and self-invented (The Situation.) This year’s biggest name stories sat at the intersection of the real and the virtual. The NOTY runner-up was a real-life name trapped in virtual limbo: Mark Zuckerberg, the name of an Indiana attorney who was kicked off Facebook for the sin of having the same name as Facebook’s founder.
Siri puts a new spin on the human/virtual name showdown. She’s virtual, but her name is human.
The computer with a voice and attitude but no face was a familiar figure in late 20th-century entertainment. Think of the arch voice of KITT, the silicon brain of a Pontiac Trans Am in the tv series Knight Rider; Joshua, the troubled NORAD computer in the film War Games; and most famously, HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose eerie calm suggested that smart computers might just be a little too smart for our own good, or might render our own petty intelligence obsolete.
It's no coincidence that each of those computers was named like a character, not a machine. Yes, KITT and HAL were theoretically acronyms, but they sounded like names and were used as such.
When you converse with something, you want to call it by a name. Have you noticed how many drivers give names to their GPS devices? Even a one-way voice conversation seems to demand a name. And consider how the year's other talking artificial intelligence, IBM's Jeopardy champion, was given the human name Watson. Quite a naming contrast with IBM's last headline-grabbing game player, the chess engine Deep Blue.
Using a human-style name reflects your relationship with the thing being named, and shapes it, too. Indoor pets, for instance, tend to be given more human names than outdoor animals. Assigning a name to a car or other possession is both a sign of growing affection and a spur to further bonding. Around my house, I've found that it's nearly impossible to throw out any object that my kids have named. Names give objects emotional life.
A human name is thus a key ingredient in the user experience of Siri. You say "the iPhone" and "my iPhone," but not "the Siri." It, she, is simply Siri. The name makes the act of conversing with a metal slab feel natural. It also encourages you to rely on her, even to form an emotional attachment which is the most powerful kind of consumer loyalty.
The way Siri’s name humanizes technology heralds a new era of name convergence. I've written elsewhere that today's parents approach baby naming a lot like product branding. In the past, names were typically chosen based on personal, private-facing meanings, like honoring a grandparent. Today, parents increasingly focus on public-facing impact. We’ve even seen brand names and baby names pop up together, like the Sienna minivan and baby Siennas, as parents look for the same kind of “oomph” that branders do. They’re trying to launch their kids into life's competitive marketplace with the best possible positioning.
The 2010 Name of the Year, "The Situation," took this naming-as-personal-branding ethic to its ridiculous extreme. But the name/brand intersection that Siri represents comes from the opposite direction. As companies introduce technologies that function like people, they suddenly find themselves in my naming world. They have to consider the complex web of cultural meanings that each name carries. They have to ask, "what kind of person are we creating, and what name represents that?"
Let's take a closer look at the choice of the name Siri. It has been widely reported that the name is a riff on SRI International, the California R&D lab where the technology was first developed. According to the people behind Siri, though, that's not the real story. Siri's founding team of executives and investors approached the naming process by turning to baby name books. There was no question that they wanted a human-style name. In fact, the project's original code name was, irresistibly, HAL.
The name Siri was proposed by the project director, Danish telecom executive Dag Kittlaus. Where did the idea come from? Simple. Siri--remember, it’s a popular name in Scandinavia-- was the girl's name Kittlaus and his wife had picked out for their first child. They ended up having a boy, so the name was kept in reserve until the proud papa finally got the chance to confer it on a virtual daughter. Sure, the letters S-R-I might have been a plus, but Siri was being launched as a separate company. Kittlaus and his team were playing to an audience of investors and consumers, not to the research lab. What mattered was the name.
And the name hit its mark dead-center. To English speakers, Siri comes across as classic Danish design: clean, spare, elegant in its simplicity. It feels namelike but isn't overly familiar or tied to any time period. It's approachable but not in-your-face. It's cool.
The name was cool enough, in fact, that when Apple bought Siri, it kept the name. That's no small thing for a company that has established itself as the trendsetter of tech cool, and that leans toward functional product names like iPhone and MacBook. The days of Apple choosing cute names like Newton and Macintosh went out with their old cheerful rainbow logo. But Steve Jobs knew a good name when he heard it, and Siri remained Siri.
To fully appreciate how good the name choice is, compare Siri to a legendary fiasco of a human-named software product, Microsoft Bob. Bob, introduced in 1995, was an alternate interface that attempted to make the intimidating world of computing a little friendlier. No more scary “directories” of “files.” Instead, Bob presented your computer as a house, with perky cartoon characters to help you find your way. Bob's logo was written BOB, with a bespectacled smiley face for an “O.” And Bob’s name revealed the product’s basic conceptual flaw. The aggressively disarming everyman pose was like Microsoft patting you on the head: "There there, helpless little user, don't you fret! Uncle Bob is here to take care of you." Bob was, in a word, patronizing.
The name Siri, in contrast, suggests the effortless Nordic cool of an Absolut Vodka bottle. It says that technology is a stylish accessory, and you, as its owner, are stylishly confident. The name encapsulates the movement of technology from geek to chic that was the defining contribution of Steve Jobs’ last decade at Apple. (That in itself makes Siri an apt name of the year for 2011, in memoriam.)
Technologically, Siri is the vanguard of a wave of systems that will try to claim increasingly human roles in our lives. Namewise, expect to be on a first-name basis with more of your electronics soon. The results of that naming shift may prove to be more powerful and unpredictable than companies, or consumers, expect.
A human name packs a lot of nuance into a few short letters. It’s more like a watercolor portrait than like Bob’s yellow smiley face. Opening up a name bridge between inanimate objects and human emotions builds connections, but it also opens you to human responses from jealousy to prejudice to grief.
Just as it’s hard to throw out a toy your children have named, might it be hard to throw out, or discontinue, a human-named product? Can a new version of Siri be called Siri3000 or SiriPro without imperiling her name-driven bonds? (Siri Jr., perhaps?) Will companies come under pressure to “hire” a diverse virtual name lineup, or spark anger by confirming name stereotypes? As a user, will you feel unfaithful switching virtual partners, and perhaps find yourself calling your new techno-assistant by the old assistant’s name? And what if a person who shares the virtual intelligence’s name runs for president…or commits a shocking crime?
Welcome to the world of personal names, technologists. You’re not in Compuland anymore.