What is the Zeroth World?
I bumped up against this odd term for the first time in August and it just stuck in my mind. The first encounter with a new word or phrase in a language one knows well triggers well-honed responses. The thing must be jargon from some field, or a regional expression, or a neologism, or, more likely, something from imaginative fiction.
Typically I Google and check Wikipedia to get some context for new words. But that didn’t help in this case. Search engine results were few and contradictory, while Wikipedia sent me in a different direction (see below). My interest perked up. Maybe this was just random noise, a bit of short-lived slang. Yet “zeroth” resonated with me, uncannily. I trusted and admired the source where I found “zeroth” and wondered. Perhaps it’s a signal of something to come; that’s where I’ll conclude this post, after teasing out the phrase.
To begin, then: I found “zeroth world” in Maciej Ceglowski’s account of the Hong Kong protests. (If you don’t know Maciej, he’s a brilliant programmer, activist, and writer. Pinboard is one of his projects.) The author wrote clearly and movingly about the event. Early on, though, was this passage:
…coming in to the Hong Kong protests from a less developed country like the United States is disorienting. If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it!
It’s hard to write articulately about the Five Demands when one keeps getting brought up short by basic things, like the existence of clean public bathrooms.
Zeroth World is a part of contemporary civilization, then. It includes those three East Asian cities and is marked by those characteristics of design, services, and society. That’s a start.
But why “zeroth”? It’s an odd word, one rarely used in written English and probably less often spoken. It means “preceding one in a series” in the way “first” means “before second, third, etc.” The Wiktionary explains it as: “In the initial position in a sequence whose elements are numbered starting at zero; the ordinal number corresponding to zero.” There’s a Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics with precedes the other Three and Isaac Asimov apparently added a Zeroth Law of Robotics. Wikipedia offers several other senses as well as the delightfully obscure alternate spelling “0th“:
- 0th grade, another name for kindergarten
- 0th dimension, a topological space
- January 0 or January 0th, an alternate name for December 31
- Zeroth (software), deep learning software for mobile devices
- Zeroth.ai, artificial intelligence & machine learning startup accelerator
And so on. All right, so we know what “zeroth” means. What does “zeroth world” represent?
It plugs into the Cold War sense of three blocs or worlds: the First World (the US and its allies, most advanced), Second World (the USSR and its allies, not so advanced), and the Third (non-aligned and developing world). After the Cold War’s end Second World fell out of use, but First and Third remained (think of “first world problems”).
So if we read those three as a sequence of development of quality of life — it was a First World model, after all — then the Zeroth World stands above the First.
Hacker News has one discussion thread about Maciej’s article that accepts and expands on this sense of the term, adding China and maybe Switzerland, plus a site-appropriate cheer for better mobile phone connections. Sebastian Pokutta uses the term in this sense in his blog post about potential positive impacts of AI on the global economy: improving economic productivity, yielding a much better world.
However, there are other senses out there. The Urban Dictionary thinks zeroth means the narrow world of high tech:
Problems caused by adopting bleeding edge technology for common, daily use before it’s reliable, such that the technology’s imperfections complicate your life. Loosely, problems that most people living in a wealthy, industrialized nation would probably roll their eyes at.
Google led me to a third sense of the term via a Wikipedia entry for “G-Zero”_world. It’s drawn from a 2012 book about an emerging international order without cohesion, without today’s big G-groups (G-7, G20, etc.). The authors even run a website called GZERO.
(Wikipedia also thinks someone once called the Church of Satan the Zeroth Satanic Church, but prefers the former for an article’s title.)
I found some evidence of a fourth sense of the phrase, to mean “very wealthy.” This blog post describes “zeroth world problems” as the kind rich folks in the first world can endure:
“Poor me! I just found a free flight to Europe with a lie-flat seat, in business class like I wanted, to the destination I wanted, on the date I wanted. BUT it has a long layover at an airport where I don’t have free lounge access.” (This was actually a thought I had a few days ago.)
“I have 4 free nights expiring soon so I had to plan a free trip with my wife to Aruba. What an inconvenience!!“ (I’ve actually heard this one too.)
One MetaFilter commentator thought this way as well.
And in a completely different vein someone has come up with a scary monster called “Shub Zeroth.”
What can we do with the zeroth world meme in its first sense, besides track its origins and contours? I think it might be a useful way of thinking about the future.
Science fiction has long proceeded by transforming language*. Stories offer altered words that cause the attentive reader to imagine how the world changed. The famous example is a character walking down a hallway to a door; the door dilates; he steps through. We might catch the word “dilate” and start imagining how a door would do that.
Similarly “zeroth world” helps us imagine a world more developed than the first, as far along a developmental track as the first is from the second. It’s a futures prompt that nudges us to imagine a world or time to come that’s significantly different from the past. Language is a futuring tool.
On the other hand, the idea of a zeroth world is also a critique. The first world idea is inherently self-congratulatory. In response, zeroth sets the first in some shade, causing us to see its flaws and limitations. Like postmodern to modern, or Internet2 to the rest of the internet, it’s a way of helping us move past the status quo. In 2019 America there’s even a political charge to it. “Make America Like Singapore” isn’t quite MAGA. Moreover, since the tentative exemplars we’ve seen occupied the second or third world only recently, thinking of them as beyond the first world forces us to ponder how they ascended so far, so quickly — and how they passed us.
The definitional glimpses I shared above are starting points. Gap analysis: how could the first world (or third) get to a position where it had excellent public services, wifi, productivity, and a combination of high population density with social cohesion? Visualization: what would a first world location (say, Detroit or Rome) look like in a zeroth settlement? Personal level: how does your life change in the zeroth? Politics: what keeps the first world from becoming zeroth?
Let me close where I began with the strangeness of the term. Again, the very oddness of the thing might indicate it’s ephemeral and/or minor, but it seems indicative of broader ideas. It opens up the imagination. And it might be a tentative first signal from an emerging future, one which looks more like Hong Kong than Chicago. Better yet, like something new and better still.
*I first heard the term “transformed language” from professor Eric Rabkin, then at the University of Michigan.