Language and Thinking

Some Topics

Metaphors, Jargon and Clouds

Jargon refers to words usually new inventions that have meaning to a select group and are meaningless to others. Jargon proliferates in technical, scientific and commerce groups, often creating word boundaries that isolate in-groups from others. Some jargon is invented and taught to a large group through advertising. Some jargon is metaphoric linking new words to familiar words and concepts.

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. The "cloud" is yet another addition to a growing lexicon of jargon. A bit of jargon is the epitome of misinformation that spreads as a meme from person to person until it is common in public speech. The cloud in physical from is a collection of server warehouses, hardware connected to the internet.

The metaphor of cloud for networking on the internet is nonsense, but as a public relations gimmick it works. Clouds in the sky look like real objects with a solid presence, but they are virtual objects made of water droplets and ice crystals – you cannot walk, sit or lie on them. What is described by "cloud computing" are changing business opportunities and the control of internet networks. Cloud enthusiasts suggest that the central role of a personal computer or notebook will diminish or disappear. Since I am unwilling to use a tiny keyboard and view data on a small screen, smartphones and other handheld portable devices are not on my wish list. In terms of usability, privacy and portability, my choice is a fully empowered desktop computer or a well-qualified notebook that can be connected to a more capable desktop computer at the office, and at home.

Using the cloud depends on users having great faith ina few companies and their enormous server warehouses that support the internet data centers and faith in the dedication of server hosts to secure your information. The potential benefits of cloud computing are obvious, but so are the problems. A complicated new jargon has emerged within the cloud metaphor which conceals rather than reveals what is really going on. The trend toward reliance on central server warehouses is well established. Server warehouses are the physical form of networks that do not resemble clouds. Henn described visiting one of the largest in Santa Clara, Calif., SC1, owned by DuPont Fabros Technology which is about a quarter-mile long. "It's about the same size and length as a Nimitz aircraft carrier," says Paul Hopkins, a regional vice president for the company. The entrance is guarded, and employees need fingerprint scans to get in and out. SC1 isn't fully built out yet. But when it is, it will use enough electricity to power more than 57,000 homes. Servers also generate heat and must be cooled continuously. Facebook uses arctic air to cool its machines for free in Lulea, Sweden, just south of the Arctic Circle where the outside temperature might be minus 20 to 25 degrees Celsius in January. Cheap, reliable hydroelectricity power is also available.”[i]

[i] Steve Henn. Searching The Planet To Find Power For The Cloud. All Tech considered. April 21, 2014

Computers and Language

Book critic, Sam Anderson, reflected on the state of language and books.  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, self-injurious behavior incidents and the war on terror. "

I have mentioned nonsense as a popular result of humans communicating among themselves. Other nonsense is adventitious, sometimes amusing, mostly confusing. The misuse of general categories is one my ongoing concerns. Of the recent category names, slogans and memes, I would select as the most misused: Health Care, Economy, National Security, Terrorism, Global, Pandemic, Virtual Reality, Cloud, Artificial Intelligence, Outer Space. 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.


Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection, I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."

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