Blunting the Tools

We use language to describe and understand our world. As we communicate with each other, we try to accurately depict what we are thinking. We report what we observe, what we infer from what we observe, and what we conclude about our inferences. Likewise we use language to learn from others the nature of their observations, inferences, and conclusions.

One of the problems we encounter in this process is ambiguity. The accuracy of the picture we create and/or see in our communication with others can become inaccurate when the ambiguity of the language allows the listener to hear something different at the level of meaning than was intended by the speaker.

An example of this occurred when I first entered the world of systems development. Software professionals in particular would talk about applications that were “operating system agnostic.” With some training in theology, I heard this as the word rooted in the Greek that combined the word for knowledge (gnosis) with the prefix indicating absence (a) to produce a term (agnostic) meaning “without knowledge.” When a speaker talked of operating system agnostic software I heard “software with no knowledge of operating systems.” That was confusing to me and not what the speaker intended to communicate. The message was garbled by the misuse of the language.

This can also occur when the imprecision stems from the lack of sufficient vocabulary to capture nuance. The use of the term “vehicle” for “car” may be technically correct but it fails to capture the difference between car, truck and bike. The more limited the vocabulary the less subtlety and nuance that can be communicated. Think of the interactions depicted in our early reading texts. “See Spot run.” is hardly what we would call a sophisticated statement.

As it becomes necessary to describe more and more complex interactions and relationships, the need for an expanded vocabulary and syntax grows. The complexity being described calls for a much more precise vocabulary and usage. The language as a tool for communicating the complex reality must match the detail and complexity it seeks to describe.

Take for example human relationships. We have parent-child, sibling-sibling, employer – employee, doctor – patient, colleague – colleague, coach – athlete and on and on. When we use these words – parent, child, sibling, employer, employee, doctor, patient, colleague, coach, athlete – we are able to convey meaning that characterizes the relationships. If we had only the words superior, inferior and peer we might be able to mash all these relationships into a description using just those terms but we would lose all the subtlety of the differences in the relationships.

Employer – employee and doctor – patient would look the same in the new limited vocabulary as would siblings and colleagues. (I won’t even get into the freighting of the “superior/inferior” terms themselves!) Suffice it to say that the reduction of the vocabulary would exact a price in a corresponding reduction in the ability to describe the realities of the relationships.

Sometimes we are frustrated with the expansion of vocabulary and syntax to cope with the growing complexity of the subject matter of our discussions. We wish to have a simpler approach to describing the world. But this path leads to a world that appears simpler itself.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, estimates that the average high school graduate has a vocabulary of about 60,000 words. This is a far cry from the limited vocabulary of the world of Dick and Jane readers. The reason for the expansion of vocabulary is the need to describe an increasingly sophisticated world.

As the light dawns that Spot does more than run – she sleeps and eats, and has puppies, and gets older to name just a few – the need to describe those activities creates the need for more ways to describe them. As the eyes open to the nuance and complexity of the world effective communication about the world becomes more and more demanding.

This is the root of the inherent danger in advocating “simple” ways of describing the world. Our vocabulary represents our ontology. As we understand complexity our ontology becomes more and more complex. Newly appreciated subtleties cause us to see what we once thought of as the “same” as now being “similar” or even “different.” As the ontology expands, the vocabulary and syntax necessary to describe it must also expand to catch the nuances.

When our “need” to simplify and make easier drives us to advocate a more limited vocabulary and syntax we must be cautious to make sure that the world we are describing justifies the simplicity. If we believe the world is actually simpler than we are describing it to be then the move to simpler descriptions is justified. But if the world is actually more complex then, however much we might wish it so, simplicity is a vice and not a virtue.

The world we describe and the systems we design to live in it are increasingly complex. Technology, population and the pace of life have all combined to demand more and more of us as system designers. The usefulness of our solutions rides on the quality of their fit and responsiveness to the “real” complex world. There is no credible voice urging us that life itself is getting simpler.

That makes a simpler “easier to use” way of describing the realities of systems solutions a beguiling trap. Like dealing with complex problems by ignoring the complexity and pretending that they are really simple problems, the attempt to streamline our descriptive vocabulary only blunts our tools. Would it be easier if we only used 100 words to communicate? Sure! Would it be helpful? Not if our goal is to transfer understanding accurately.

We need to deal with complexity. That requires nuanced and complex capability. It may be inconvenient but it’s reality. Pretending otherwise simply isn’t helpful.


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