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language is the master of (wo)man

October 27, 2011

“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man”

Martin Heidegger

So what’s the difference between talking about Linear Based Print Media and Retrospective Coherence? Well the first is clearly pretentious nonsense (it means books; if you didn’t realise that give yourself a star) the second is more curious. We could say hindsight which is more common place but does it mean the same? I normally combine the two. I argue that retrospective coherence is one of the two main dangers when dealing with complex situations (the other is premature convergence on a solution) and I normally couple this with or the benefits of hindsight. I use the latter phrase because I want to be understood, I use the former because I want to advance understanding. The former phrase carries richer meaning, links to the wider concept of coherence which comes into play a lot with complexity work and is a more precise statement.   

Another case would be my use of distributed cognition instead of wisdom of crowds, but that is different as its a correction, crowds are not wise they are foolish. Distributed cognition is a more accurate description that could not be perverted into something crude like crowd sourcing. English of course is a terrible temptation given the richness and sheer number of alternative phrases with subtly different meaning available and that is before we get onto metaphor and allegory.

Basically the question is when does legitimate technical language become jargon, or when does legitimacy degenerate into meaningless obscurantism? It’s an important question as the Heidegger quote illustrates and any sales person can tell you. A long time ago when I moved from being a Development Accountant to a Decision Support Consultant I was put through basic sales training. Well it was more extreme sales training. Nick drove us through a basic how to sell double glazing course from cold call to foot in the door to assumtive close. It was a lot more useful than been trained just in a consultancy sale, double glazing is sales red in tooth and claw and you learn a lot from it. One of the key learnings was to see when the customer started to use your own language, that to the use the jargon (sic) was a closing signal.

So if people use a different language they start to think differently. One of the problems with complexity theory is that people confuse it with systems thinking, a lot of the language is in common. So by introducing new, but scientifically accurate language you can change people’s perception so they see problems and solutions in a different way. By just using common place language with common meaning its too easy for people to slip back into their comfort zone.

Of course if you take it too far it becomes obscurantism, worthy of the worst continental post-modernism. Language designed to crete an elite, in which acquisition of the cult language suborns your own critical thinking is several steps too far. Pretentious nonsense such as linear based print media is less evil more comical but to be avoided. New language should be introduced in the context of the old, either by a double expression (retrospective coherence and hindsight) or through an antonym (effective v efficient) or in the context of a metaphor. Beneficial coherence within attractors within boundaries makes sense as part of the Children’s Party Story; on its own it would not.

The corollary is to deliberately dumb ideas down in the supposed interests of laming them simple, a practice which is generally more simplistic than it is informative, or to reject any language you do not instantly understand (the first refuge of the anti-intellectual, by which we should read anti-intelligence). Language games are serious games, and we need to be more sophisticated in the way we play them.

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