February 15, 2011

Jargon and Clouds

The latest metaphor for internet communications is the "cloud." I am not a fan of the cloud concept and have practical concerns about placing all data records and computing resources in public networks. Doubts, notwithstanding, the fuzziness of the cloud does describe the disappearance of boundaries and coherence in the great and prolific noise of the internet.

Book critic, Sam Anderson, reflected on the state of language and books at the end of 2010. Electronic communication has changed human communication and changed the way people use language. The tendency is to condense, compress and fragment communications, so that sustained attention to meaningful conversations is less likely and books that require hours to days of concentration are becoming obsolete. Anderson stated: I tend to shy away from big, sweeping, era-defining statements. It’s the fastest possible way to be wrong about the world, and usually just an excuse for various forms of sloppy thinking: cherry-picking, scapegoating, doomsaying, fear-mongering, sandbagging, arm-twisting, wool-gathering, leg-pulling. And yet it would be hard to dispute that over the last 5 or 10 years, the culture has changed drastically. The shift is so obvious that it’s boring, by now, even to name the culprits: Google, blogs, texting, tweets, iPhones, Facebook — a little army of tools that have given rise to (and grown out of) radically new habits of attention. Many of us are now addicted, on the dopamine-receptor level, to a moment-by-moment experience of life that’s defined by a behavior sometimes referred to as “time slicing”: jumping every few seconds between devices or windows or tabs, constantly swiveling the periscope of our attention around and around the horizon to see where the latest relevant data-burst might come from. "

Ramchandani recalled Orwell's remarks that, since political language is usually the defense of the indefensible, it has to consist "largely of euphemism, and cloudy vagueness". She stated:" Anyone trying to impress, to sell or to obfuscate is likely to brutalise the language. Prominent offenders are businessmen, with their onboard customer service representatives, collision damage waivers, nonincremental growth opportunities and enhanced information management activities, providing innovative solutions and significant leverage in the use of resources, and thus permitting an increasing percentage of senior professional time to be expended on value-added solutions. Politicians can effortlessly match this. Their stock-in-trade is sustainable development, key performance indicators, the knowledge-based economy, inclusiveness and empowered communities, all offered up with mandatory passion, vision and excitement. Put politicians together with soldiers and you get Islamofascism, extraordinary rendition, selfinjurious behaviour incidents and the war on terror. "

I have mentioned nonsense as a popular result of humans communicating among themselves. The nonsense generated by business and politics has functionality and goals. Other nonsense is adventitious, sometimes amusing, mostly confusing. The misuse of general categories is one my ongoing concerns. Of the 2011 category names, slogans and memes, I would select as the most misused: Health Care, Economy, National Security, Terrorism, Global, and most recently, Pandemic. Health should have remained one the basic English words, protected by a supreme language authority. Instead, health has been lost to the politicians and businessmen. In Canada health was used as the name for a new medical and hospital insurance act in 1967. Canada Health Insurance led to Ministries of Health and a commerce in health services and products.

The problem, of course, is that health once referred to healthy people who were free of disease, physically fit, productive and happy. Healthy people did not need to spend money on doctor visits, drugs and surgery. Now health care points to injured and sick people who need doctors and hospitals. Either healthy people vanished or they can be ignored. New terms such as "wellness" appeared, but no category word could replace the proper label "health." Instead of health care, the correct term is medical care, a heterogeneous collection of products and services provided by MDs, drug suppliers and hospitals that deal with people who are not healthy. Medical care is required by people who move from health to illness, often slowly over many years, Life is a one way street and disease progression will remove opportunities for prevention or early intervention. Hospitals collect people who have serious injuries or advanced disease and require the most expensive medical care.

From Language and Thinking by Stephen Gislason.
Jargon, Nonsense and Clouds