What is the Zeroth World, and how can we use it?

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 writerPinboard 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.

zero by Quinn DombrowskiBut 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“:

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”).

Google Ngram: First Second Third worlds visualized

Google Ngram sees Third World as the most popular term of late.

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.

Along these lines one Fogus wrote about “0th world problems” back in 2012Here’s a similar post.

zero graffiti by duncan c

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.”

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?

Singapore's night sky

Singapore’s night sky

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.

(zero images by Quinn Dombrowski and duncan c; Shub Zeroth by Nebulon5)

*I first heard the term “transformed language” from professor Eric Rabkin, then at the University of Michigan.

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7 Responses to What is the Zeroth World, and how can we use it?

  1. On the one hand, it’s pithy, and as an Azimov fan it hits me in the feels.

    On the other hand, given that the international development folks stopped referring to the first, second, and third world decades ago, I’m a little reluctant to embrace “zeroth world” and breathe new life into a discarded model.

  2. Jakob Gowell says:

    When you were offering other examples of zeroth in language, I saw your allusion to Asimov coming, and I think there’s something instructive in that example. In the progression of the book, the Three Laws of Robotics are all offered simultaneously. (I’m going to try to do this without going and getting my Robot Trilogy omnibus edition to refer to, so pardon the lack of concrete citations.) Their enumeration and explanations come more or less simultaneously, and I might argue that they emerge from contemporary intellectual labor/invention. This is true certainly for the characters within the narrative (but may also be true for Asimov himself). As such, it makes sense to start from 1, and count upwards as starting from 0 would seem to imply a null value. A zeroth term, then, is a post-hoc addition to this ordinal taxonomy, added as a necessary elaboration due to changing conditions (of cognition or situation). Otherwise, why not just name the zeroth law the first law? In the Asimov example, the addition of a zeroth law (a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm) is an extrapolation of the previous three laws, superseding them in a hierarchical fashion. This last bit on hierarchy also seems important, because it’s the reason this particular zeroth law wasn’t just tacked on the end as the 4th law.

  3. Warren Blyth says:

    my first thought: how relevant is this to the Nine Inch Nails concept album “Year Zero” (which is about society being reset in the near future, and riddled with politics)

  4. 1. Did you notice that Google auto suggestions when you search “zeroth world”? (Sending you a screenshot by email.)

    2. Did you try Google Trends?When I do the earliest mention it seems to find is 2011.https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=%22Zeroth%20world%22

    3. Which takes me to this complete text of a book on Slideshare:https://www.slideshare.net/NILSHARE/the-end-of-inequality

    4. Which appears to be this 2011 book:https://www.amazon.com/End-Inequality-Global-Sustainable-Future/dp/3843386129

    5. Searching “0th world” brings up slightly different results to explore.

    6. Did you try searching Google Books?
    Not much there except a couple of examples of it being used without attribution, as in this case:https://books.google.com/books?id=4kUDoKRbfqcC&pg=PA287&dq=%22zeroth+world%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjnso_3nZTlAhVxg-AKHaRCB4IQ6AEwAHoECAMQAg#v=onepage&q=%22zeroth%20world%22&f=false 
    7. It shows up in a couple of Quora threads but they don’t shed any light on where the term comes from.

    8. Many many uses of it when you search on Twitterhttps://twitter.com/search?q=%22zeroth%20world%22&src=typed_queryThere’s one person who uses it as their handle since 2010.https://twitter.com/zerothworld And people referring to zeroth world problems on Twitter in 2009. 

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Robert, thank you for digging in! Fascinating to follow, no?

      Google Trends: I would like to know what was behind that.

      “complete text of a book on Slideshare” – big book! No reviews on Amazon.

      Twitter is interesting on this. Seems to confirm my approach.

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