The digital factotum della città

A precious opportunity was missed when multifunctional mobile devices were named ‘smart’ instead of ‘factotum’.

It seems that phones became ‘smart’ in 1995, when the term appeared for the first time in relation to AT&T’s Phonewriter Communicator. As is the case with language in general, the term helped accommodate the thought that devices can be smart in a way that humans are smart, firing all sorts of ideas about the possibilities of technology in the public imagination.

Obviously, ‘smart’ is a metaphor at best and a misnomer at worst. Tech is not smart in the sense of possessing human-like intelligence. It’s not even street-smart, full of intuition and able to make quick decisions in unexpected environments. At best, it is a metaphor about those who wired the devices, a trope about huge computing power packed in a handheld artefact.

Factotum, on the other hand, may be a more suitable designation. The smartphone may not do everything, but every device seems to accomplish more than its predecessor. Its multi-functionality qualifies it for the factotum de la città, the urban factotum, as Rossini’s Barber of Seville has it. The factotum was a general servant, a jack of all trades, expected to do everything. The Latin word originated, in all probability, during the Late Middle Ages as a compound consisting of fac (do, make!) and totum (everything), and is first attested in English as early as the 1560s.

The ancestor of the modern smartphone used to be called ‘personal digital assistant’. The factotum would have been a fitting successor in the age of ‘intelligent’ computing. What better way to describe a device that acts as a powerful computer, a TV screen, a camera, a phone, a notepad and a game console? It certainly seems able to do anything, and that’s why it should have been called a factotum.

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