Technobabble (a portmanteau of technology and babble), also called technospeak, is a form of jargon that uses buzzwords, esoteric language, specialized technical terms, or technical slang that is incomprehensible to the listener. Various fields of practice and industry have their own specialized vocabularies, or jargon, that allow those educated within that industry to concisely convey ideas that may be confusing, misleading, or nonsensical to an outside listener. The difference between technobabble and jargon lies with the intent of the user and the audience: a dishonest person might use overly technical (and often meaningless) language to overwhelm and confuse the audience, masking their dishonesty, while a fiction writer might use it to cover plot holes or to invoke suspension of disbelief of story elements that defy current understandings of science and technology. Use of jargon within technical circles and with no intent to obfuscate is not usually included in the definition of technobabble.
Authors and others who wish to convey a feeling of technical sophistication may write or talk in technobabble. They may use jargon without considering what it actually means to give an impression that they know things that their readers or listeners do not. However, if the jargon is decoded, it becomes apparent that the originator does not really understand what has been said or is deliberately being unclear. When used in this way, technobabble is considered pretentious and often unacceptable. If done carelessly, even novice listeners can often detect subtle signs of dishonesty and insincerity.
Technobabble's principal use in most science fiction, in particular more hard science fiction, is to conceal the true (impossible) nature of materials, technologies, or devices mentioned in the story, frequently because of a violation regarding the current understanding of the laws of physics. As reality and somewhat serious projections about the future are important in hard sci-fi, technobabble can give the impression of new discoveries rendering our current understanding of how the universe works "wrong". For example, despite the implications of the Special Theory of Relativity on faster than light travel, it can be done via wormholes—technobabble provides an "enabling device" to provide the impression that this current understanding was "limited" or "flawed" without actually having to explain how or why.
Technobabble also occurs in soft science fiction, although here it is frequently just a throw-away part of the world and not dwelt on. Soft sci-fi generally prefers unobtainium or handwavium to technobabble, as it is less taxing on the reader and fits with the setting of telling a story in a sci-fi setting as opposed to telling a story about partially fictional science.
There are several forms of technobabble. One form, mostly used in fiction, depends on jargon and story features that are specific to or even exclusive to the story's universe. Stringing together a series of these elements to explain a problem or solution allows the author to easily craft a situation without having to depend on real-world laws to correlate to or confirm it. For example, the time travel device in the 1985 comedy drama film Back to the Future was said to be powered by a "flux capacitor", which has no meaning outside the context of the movie. A specialised form of technobabble known as treknobabble (and listed in scripts simply as '[TECH]') was devised for the various long-running Star Trek television programs and movies, which relied upon quasi-scientific solutions to dramatic problems. Other science fiction movies and literature have their own form of technobabble. This is often because the concepts and items being talked about are fictional, but necessary for the story.
A second form of technobabble comes from the practice of taking an otherwise simple concept and describing it in a scientifically overworked manner to mask its inherent simplicity (see: Sesquipedalian Obscurantism). One well-known example is the dihydrogen monoxide hoax, describing the supposedly dangerous characteristics of ordinary water by labelling the substance with its esoteric chemical name. Another famous example is the sentence "I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow" used by the Third Doctor twice in his original run in the 1970s and in the 1984 Doctor Who anniversary episode; neutrons are chargeless, so to reverse the polarity of a neutron flow is to do nothing at all.
Some forms of technobabble have the goal of intentionally convincing the reader that the science explained is true even though it may not be. One such example is Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (1996), in which Sokal submitted a seemingly real, but nonsensical, paper to the Journal Social Text in order to show that a supposedly serious journal in postmodern theory would accept a meaningless paper if it used sufficiently impenetrable language.
- Bogdanov Affair
- Rubber science
- Sokal Affair
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