Tuesday 27 November 2012

Language is confusing
By Giles Emerson 24/11/12

About 20 years ago a revered client in a government scientific laboratory up in East Kilbride told me about two scientists keenly discussing a project. Talking in the language of their discipline they inevitably used shorthand in the form of acronyms and mutually understood jargon to make themselves clear, one to the other.

We have all slipped into acronyms and tribal or cultural jargon in our language: from ‘radar’ to ‘posh’, from ‘OMG’ and ‘ROFL’,  from ‘value creating propositions’ (sic) to ‘delivering deliverables’. As technology struggles in vain to slow down to meet the current ‘temporal mass’ of the human psyche’s ability to cope with flying words (the point where it has some commercial or other application, however temporary), far too often these terms are confusing, even between scientists having a banter.

According to my client, “one of the scientists referred to MAP, meaning Manufacturing Automated Protocol but the other took this to mean MAP, or Microprocessor Applications Program.” I was then told that the mistake was an easy enough one to make at the time but the confusion compounded when, in the course of the conversation each scientist all but simultaneously realised his own mistake and, out of courtesy, adopted the other’s MAP reference.

When I heard this story, particularly given the nice idea of the loss of map references in communication, I was triggered to write an article called ‘Trapped in the Word Jungle’, which was published in The Times. I subsequently wrote several articles on the subject for The Times and The Independent. Most of them were tongue in cheek, but some of them were quite angry.

In the mid-90s one section of an article I wrote for The Independent’s ‘Glossary’ section (when holiday-sitting for journalist/broadcaster Thomas Sutcliffe) went thus: ”How did we get to the state in which we no longer flinch at expressions such as ‘natural wastage’? There must be a kinder and more grateful way of referring to people who are retiring early or leaving a job for other reasons. Natural wastage is probably as welcome a term to the naturally wasted, as ‘ethnic cleansing’ is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.” That was written in about 1996. Ouch!

Looking at what’s happening today, you will forgive me for not trying to evaluate the numbers of confusions that abound in all parts of our life – inevitably, therefore in business and government attempts at good communication. There’s just too much mess of words and poverty of expression around and it is richly compounded by laziness and a dependence on emails; all of which is mounted from the rear by the weakest of all e-animals, otherwise known as ‘social media’, a source of confusion that is already muddling itself up with a plethora of activities loosely embraced in ‘digital communications’.

Thankfully, the monuments of our age that I feel sure descendent historians will keenly examine as representatives of our strange period of history, will be the things that actually remain: some buildings in the mud, some books in casks.  It’s an interesting subject to chew on or to dally about in a hangover debate.

I wonder whether anything of a digital kind will remain, however cleverly we store it for future reference. ‘Ether’ and online communications, and the servers that support their distribution and storage, are as ephemeral as a sneeze in terms of the passing of time. And they have a way of getting up our nose only to block it until the next sneeze occurs.

To return to the slippery present, I am of an age myself where I am angry enough to write about things in a way which might, hideously, be called ‘passionate’. Yet I’m young enough to be truly hungry for the next paid work and have a longish way to go before I can retire sufficient to enjoy a few things that are genuinely left to enjoy in the retirement sense. What’s age got to do with this, you might ask?

Well, when I think of my continued gibbering at the stupidity of things, I wonder at how so many old people manage as well as they do. Perhaps they live on adrenalin fired by anger. If not, how do they sustain themselves, intellectually and otherwise on the poor fare that is served up to them in the form of modern (or relevant and accessible modern) communications?

Just as I revere my long-since otherwise employed former client, I hope that old people can just about get by revering their memories, giving and unwritten two fingers to the world at large. Fortunately for us all, we do have some contact with old people who still have the energy and optimism to be angry out loud. These prize exhibits will usually find the chance to tell us things about the past that have shaped and liberated all of us: free as we are to wander into our own wimpish and unnecessary fires.

But how many of us less-wrinklies truly listen, or have time to listen, or to ‘do’ the imagination that goes with good listening when the email in-tray is, once again, “tipping its bucket into the maelstrom”.

Having said all of which, thank God for weblogs!

Copyright: Giles Emerson 20th November 2012/also The Times (dtbd)

Thursday 1 November 2012

How scary is change?

Hands up those of you who are a little bit scared of technological ‘progress’? Ah, I see a few shy hands in the air. I don’t really wonder why this is because, personally, I’d put myself in the petrified rather than scared category. Those of us older than 40 have seen the most phenomenal advances in what has become doable since the advent of the web, email and broadband, and we are only just catching up with the many profound ways new hardware and software affect the way we work, alter our skills and throw new light on what we do for a living.

No matter how slow or recessionary the economies of the western and emerging world might become – and we may see much worse yet – we will not see a commensurate slowing down in the rate of delivery of new technologies from the usual giants, and from some new ones. Nor will we see a diminution in the take-up of these tools for work and play. I choose my words carefully here because I am doubtful about how much a Tablet or iPad, or more traditional laptop bought for work purposes is devoted solely to that purpose. It seems that just about every interaction we have from the age of about 11 or younger until we shuffle off our virtual coils involves us examining a screen, flicking adeptly on an app, or otherwise surfing the ether.

Perhaps what startled me into this line of thought was the consideration that so many people are now shopping online that the independent high street shop is likely, quite seriously, to become either a thing of the past or a shop front only – somewhere where passers-by can see goods on display but will not be able to buy them until they get out their gadgetry or are sitting in front of their home screens. We are seeing the move towards e-books and the ructions this is causing among major publishers. How soon will it be before our proclivity for surfing the web, using increasingly sophisticated technology, truly alters the nature and landscape of our towns and cities.

What is noticeably lacking in all these things is personal interaction. Just as people used to prefer the convenience of the telephone rather than a face-to-face meeting, today they prefer to text or email rather than do either of the latter. Human interaction recedes, even within the domain of an open plan office but also in ways which might have longer term social effects. I live in a beautiful rural area and there are plenty of children hereabouts but they seldom romp and play in the woods. More often they are attached to a smartphone or a games console and, too often I think, they live in their own virtual worlds.

We are so profoundly affected by the revolution in communication that we are probably unaware of how much it has become the thing we do rather than a means to an end in pure communication terms. People can and do spend entire days emailing each other, sometimes unwittingly doubling and trebling their workloads as they pour what amounts to too much information, much of which is unread (and much unreadable), into each other’s online in trays.

But it is very difficult to take stock of the way we work and of our relationship with technology when we are passengers on an increasingly fast-moving train. I am ambivalent about this. I personally love technology when I’m on top of it and using it effectively to support work and social activities. At the same time I feel that it gnaws insidiously into the fabric of things; that we are in some ways a slave to it; that it is divorcing us from our real natures and from natural things; that it creates barriers between ourselves and others, making us reclusive; that it supports progress in what appears to be a visionless and, to some extent, value-debased society; that perhaps it is a toy we distract ourselves with as we hurtle towards the fallen bridge.  

As a result of the enormity of change that has occurred, primarily because of the use of email, broadband, internet and related devices, we are probably still in the aftermath of the first stages of a revolution and have no cognisance of the size of the wave that takes us along. Inevitably, we are still slavishly exploring novelty rather than making use of tools. And in technological terms we are spoilt for choice, tearing open our presents and discarding the toys before they are fully out of their packages.

Much of our relationship with technology is possibly down to the fact that we don’t really have full understanding or control of it – or at least few of us do. Yet we seldom admit even to ourselves that we are basically confused about the real effectiveness and the direction of travel of this technology, while we all want to appear technophiles and show our commitment to the glorious revolution and the brave new world. But are we wearing the emperor’s clothes? Is there a way of standing back, regaining control and setting a purposeful course?