Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Will We All Speak IT?

At a recent teleconference, I heard the speaker first refer to “provisioning” a solution and then to people who would “on-board” that solution. It suddenly struck me that I was witnessing a new stage in the intrusion of language derived from computing into our daily lives.

Here’s how it used to go: we grew up with the rules of grammar and vocabulary as taught us in school, and as computer technology evolved, its new ideas and products used the words of, and fit neatly into, the English we were taught. A machine made a computation of a number, it computed, it was a computer. A piece of information in a computer, from the Latin, was a datum, plural data, stored in a data base, managed by a database management system.

In the same way, the jargon of computer techies, even when it spilled over into the population at large, was ultimately derived from ideas already in English. Bogosity – the quality of being bogus; bogon – a unit of bogosity. Misfeature – a combination of mistake and feature, a mistake that was touted by marketdroids (mindless marketers) as a feature.

ITSpeak 2.0
I first noticed things beginning to change in the late 1990s. In the 1980s, I had been frustrated as a purist by the universal tendency of my fellow programmers to refer to an example problem, an example case, an example screen, instead of a sample screen, as I had always been taught. Still, until the late 1990s, I never saw anyone else use “example” as an adjective; then marketing, and sometimes business blogs for a general audience, started to use “example” that way. However, even in the computing industry, there was strong purist resistance. I well remember the difficulties I had at Aberdeen Group persuading the editors that in computing, it was now “lifecycle”, not “life cycle”. Today, I can’t remember having seen “life cycle” in years.

In some ways, these tinkerings with basic English had a positive effect, I believe. Using “example” for “sample” is a good case in point: the meaning is clear from context, and it’s easier to use one word for the concept than learn two.

But the changes were not all for the good. I still remember some annoying marketer at Sybase, iirc, deciding in the late 1990s that from now on it was to be “database”, not “database management system”. The result was that users ever since are constantly confused as to whether they are talking about the software, or the data stored for use by that software – which I now have to always call the “data store” to make myself clear. In the same way, Enterprise Information Integration is now “data virtualization”, which captures only half the qualities of the software.

And, of course, with the advent of the Web IT words became far more ubiquitous, from blog to tweet. Sadly, these words have now become a measure of age, as each successive fad embeds its IT words into popular language, and we now divide generations into those that know what “to friend” means, and those who don’t.

ITSpeak Takes Over?
Even so, I didn’t see until now any clear indication that computer jargon was crowding out basic English words. But consider “provision”. Until very recently, a male was a “provider” who made enough money to put “provisions” on the table for the family. Now, IT has taken the word and abstracted it, to describe a general process of populating the empty shell of any new solution, and turned it from a noun into a verb. This major change in meaning is coming from IT, but it isn’t stopping there. Pretty soon, I expect to hear supermarkets start talking about “provisioning” their new stores, and then home builders and buyers start to talk about “provisioning” the new house with furniture.

The same goes for “on-board”. Like “friend” and “provision”, it’s a straightforward conversion of another part of speech to a verb. Like “provision”, it is a major switch in meaning that carries with it the notion of a process rather than an individual act. In the teleconference, it appeared to mean users carrying out the tasks of becoming part of a new IT solution themselves. But, again, I expect that soon employees will be expected to “on-board” themselves via “self-service portals”, and then students starting at college, and then what? Will we create new automated birthing centers where newborns will be expected to “on-board” themselves by responding to automated nipples? Will end-of-life hospices be referred to as “off-boarding centers?”

What If ITSpeak Does Take Over?
If we all starting talking ITSpeak – a language many of whose concepts originated in computing – is that good or bad? I believe that it’s way too early to tell. On the positive side, many of these words come from trying to distinguish more clearly between similar things, when the differences matter. The idea that a misfeature is not the same as a feature is important, and useful to us.

On the negative side, some historical richness of meaning may be lost. Always employing “utilize” instead of “use” (not really ITSpeak, but analogous) is not only unnecessarily lengthy, it also misses the importance in history of the distinction between “applying an object for a use for which it is designed” and “applying an object whether it helps in a task or not”. You utilize a Phillips screwdriver in following the directions for assembling a kid’s toy; you use a user’s manual for Microsoft Word even though it often doesn’t give you the answer you need.

No, my point here is that I think this represents a fundamental shift in our thinking, as we begin to see the world as IT folks do. At the least, this might mean that we think more of software-type abstractions and less of “legacy” physical objects, see life more in terms of processes and less in terms of interactions, and view others less in terms of irrationality and psychology and more in terms of categories and connections. So to maximize the chances of something good coming out of this, I think we ought to at least recognize that it is going on.

Will we all speak IT, all the time? Someday, quite possibly. Right now, it’s time to prepare to provision, so that we may on-board effectively.

No comments: