Thursday, April 30, 2009

More Fun(?) with words

Sometimes the TwitterSphere is just too constraining to get a thought across fully. I naively posted a question about the definition of "Application" – to see what would come back. It turned into a delightfully healthy discussion with some twists and turns along the way. It isn't every day that Duns Scotus and Humpty Dumpty show up in the same post – at least not unless Richard Veryard (@richardveryard) is involved!

So a good question is "Why do you want to define application?" My answer is actually that I don't want to DEFINE it, I just want to know what people might mean when they bandy the term about. As Nigel Green (@taotwit) and I chatted this morning at length on this and other topics, the recurring theme was, "I'd like a quick way to parse a conversation." In other words, when I am talking to someone and trying to understand what it is they want (requirements anyone?) I would like to know their frame of reference so that we can communicate.

How often have we heard requirements that say things like, "I want a database that …." Actually, I suspect it isn't usually the database that the requestor wants, it is some way of manipulating the data with a purpose in mind. Maybe, even, an application (gasp).

So just as in a previous post where I was wondering about type/instance nomenclature, so here I am wondering about other opportunities for miscommunication.

Richard makes an interesting point, "@seabird20 If something persistently escapes or evades precision, then maybe it was the wrong concept in the first place." That may well be true, but we can't unbreak the egg. The words are out there, their meanings are many, we can't (and shouldn't) attempt to unify the vocabulary (even the Acad̩mie francaise has stopped trying to keep French completely pure Рle weekend anyone?)

So this is not a cry for definition and ontology for its own sake. It is a means to collect lots of definitions so we can understand each other better. Of course, the more we share context, the more "shorthand" we can use to express ourselves – because we have either tacitly or explicitly agreed to the vocabulary. It is in the "getting to know you" stages where shared context and trust are established. It is at those early stages where slight misunderstandings can blossom into full-fledged disagreements and a loss of opportunity to trust.


Richard Veryard said...

I'm not mad enough to try and unify the language. But some words are so polluted by confusion and misuse that I prefer to avoid using them (or at least avoid relying on them for any purpose that requires precision) rather than attempt the Herculean labour of removing the aura of confusion that surrounds them.

I have heard of an organization that banned the word "strategy" for just this reason.

Of course you could argue that all words and phrases are subject to ambiguity, and better communication is a vital challenge even if always doomed to fall short of perfect understanding.

But if there is no useful concept underlying a word, then there isn't much point trying to invent one, is there?

fickles said...

If one adds Tufte to the mixture..
Although I do not have the history of words and langauge at my finfertips, it seems at some point our ancestors started with pictures ,then symbols..
There would appear to have been a deterioration in "clarity" as we moved from pictures as a means of recording communication to words, and is there a case to be made to try and use both to improve clarity, context..

Chris Bird said...

Responding to Richard - great point about the pollution of meaning of certain words. You can certainly avoid using them, but you can't easily dissuade someone else from using them around you.

So again, we end up with a highly contexted discussion - most of the time it works. The trick is in figuring the context and whose responsibility that is in the exchange. Of course when we have 2 people each trying to figure out each others' context, we end up with a situation like the mental gymnastics between Vizzini and Westley in "The Princess Bride".

Chris Bird said...

Replying to Fickles.
Certainly in early language when dealing with concrete objects it is handy to use a picture - not a lot of ambguity there. But as we become more anstract - imbuing characters and words with meaning, so we immediately introduce ambiguity.

Since all abstraction hides some facets, it is almost axiomatic that abstraction through language will increase ambiguity. So we shroud the new word in context initially, and then use it in a way that has no context expecting the other party to share context.

Two parties divided by a common language (apologies to the late WLSC)