The embodiment of technopanics – Gesture

“Fear is an extremely powerful motivating force, especially in public policy debates,” writes Adam Thierer. The emotion is often used to drive public policy to spectacular effect, but it little understood in this context. Thierer’s paper “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle” fills in those gaps. In reading it, however, I was struck by the connections at various points to current linguistic theory, and so this is my attempt to slowly build a comprehensive paper to further elaborate on the topic. The first section is on gesture, simply enough.


Chimpanzees do not point. Although they might hear the vocalizations of other apes and assume the presence of a predator without seeing it, the one who vocalizes will always have sight of the the predator. They cannot, unlike humans, point to things that are not there; they cannot express information about an absent thing. To some, this might seem like a minor distinction, but for those concerned with language, it is a gulf, separating the simple communication of higher apes and other social creatures, from the defining feature of humanity, language. To be more concrete, we can express abstract gestures.

The ability to point to something out there that we both do not see, is the key difference. It hints at something larger, at a more basic relationship between abstract gesture and abstract communication. There are however many of these threads running between anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology that paint a complex mosaic of relationships connecting language with important bodily features like gesture, motion, emotion and reason. The total project that has tried to draw together many of the important thought is generally being called cognitive science, and gives us an important theoretical underpinning to the power of technopanics.

It helps to begin where all of the magic happens, the brain. As evident from a wide assortment of studies on language disorders, only a limited number of areas in the cerebrum have linguistic capabilities; the so called Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas being two of the most studied and well known. Nearly all of these areas of language processing are located on the left side of the brain, next to areas that control speech and movement. This is not just a peculiarity, but integral to processing. As evidenced in studies employing neural imaging, mentions of the face or the leg will cause the part of the brain that directs movement in the face or the leg to light up. Conversely, activation will occur in many of the same language areas when an individual conducts simple tasks involving the leg or the face. When repeated for visual and olfactory stimuli, language centers again were activated.

This partially explains why comprehension tests show a marked increased in semantic understanding for the situations that are essentially spatial or related to ‘body-object interaction,’ as there is complex array of processing dedicated to these relations.

To guide the movement of the body through space, there must be constant physiological monitoring of the environment and the relations of nearby objects. Body schema is the name given to this internal system of control. As a version of homeosatis, body schema is a kind of internal regulation that is universal for life. Distinct from the rest of the higher primates and the animal kingdom, humans by far have the most complex of these systems, as we are able to incorporate tools within seconds. Oftentimes, there is no natural inclination to actually interact with tools on the part of other primates, which is universal of humans, and they have taught.

In many ways, this is a new way of looking at language. This new program of research has emerged,

[This] approach focuses attention on the fact that most real-world thinking occurs in very particular (and often very complex) environments, is employed for very practical ends, and exploits the possibility of interaction with and manipulation of external props. It thereby foregrounds the fact that cognition is a highly embodied or situated activity—emphasis intentionally on all three— and suggests that thinking beings ought therefore be considered first and foremost as acting beings.

First published Apr 21, 2013