The unbearable vagueness of language

The title Computing Canada is not as anachronistic or laughable as the Association for Computing Machinery, but it runs pretty close. It’s an irony that as this journal celebrates a milestone anniversary, its title is close to an irrelevant description of its contents. I like it that way. Most users of computers these days may understand in a vague way that there is indeed a “computer” embedded in their iPod Shuffle, cellphone or car, but have no idea about how it works. And that is sad. The core technology of the information age has submerged almost without trace, and without leaving its mark on our language and culture.
For some of us, and you’ve got to be pretty old to qualify, the word “computer” is capable of evoking a physical memory — the smell of warm punched cards, the sound of a high-speed printer, the sight of a flickering console. That is why I like the title of this journal. It’s a reminder of actual machines, machines such as the 1620, 7094, 1130, Vax, 4341, PC or even the smart card that I have known from the circuitry and instruction setup. I don’t relate to blade technology, a disk farm and a 200,000-server Google universe in the same way.
This is not just regret for a bygone, golden age when real men had soldering irons. Elements of Style, the famous little book on how to write, makes the point that effective writing and communication is based on concrete and specific words rather than vague generalities. But we are already out of the “computer” business, and even the term “information technology,” hatefully vague in itself, seems inadequate to encompass every use of computers we see. In this haste to embrace an apparently more useful description of what it is we do, we are in danger of losing sight of its essentials.
Earlier technologies, in place over centuries, had time to embed their core concepts in language that everyone understood. For example, “sailing close to the wind,” “batten down the hatches,” and “in the wake of.” In our case the specifics of the technology to which people can relate are already a long way up the stack, in the mechanics of the browser, window icons and other user interfaces, so this is where language will form. Sadly, in the transition from computing technology to ubiquitous information technology, almost all of the key concepts are lost. It’s a far cry from the insights of John Von Neumann and Alan Turing to the debased way in which people experience computers today. How can anyone sense the transformative power of this wonderful technology, lost in the menu tree of an IVR system, or banging away at their online assailant in battlefield Iraq?
The title Computing Canada induces the thought that we should try to find a way to retain a way of talking about our business in concrete terms, even suggesting that without specific understanding about computers you aren’t qualified to participate in the debate. Good.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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