There was information overload coming at you from all sides at Networks 96. Wherever you looked there was something to read and assimilate.
How much of it was of any value is a moot point.
There are two problems with much of the information on which the Information Age is apparently to be built. First, much of it is not information at all but assertion - claims made by parties with an axe to grind. Second, plenty of it bears a passing resemblance to English, but on examination means very little.
At least the IT industry isn't alone when it comes to mangling language.
Jargon-lovers will enjoy the following sample from a recent defence newspaper.
If you thought IT was bad, take a look at this report on the inquiry into the crash of an unmanned aircraft:
'Investigators have concluded that the air vehicle did not flip on its back, as once believed, which would have indicated instability. Instead ...
it sustained a flight dynamic divergent oscillation that caused a porpoising effect.'
I particularly enjoy that porpoising effect. But how a porpoising effect differs from instability is something only the experts could know, and the experts have already spoken. The writer of the piece doesn't quote them directly, but it is difficult to believe a journalist came up with that extraordinary sentence unaided.
Yes, all professions have their own obscure ways with words. To that extent, at least, computing qualifies as a profession. This will come as a relief to many of its practitioners. Their status vis-a-vis doctors, lawyers and estate agents has been a source of anxiety to some for decades.
In quoting a sample of the financial community's prose, JK Galbraith in The Great Crash notes 'connoisseurs will wish to read it backwards as well as forwards'. A hundred words of intricate gibberish from the Federal Reserve Board followed. As with other communications from people generally regarded as possessing some special insight, the language is used to mask ignorance, inertia and, in this case, impotence - October 1929 was just around the corner.
We thus arrive at a peculiar pass where language becomes a mechanism not for communicating information but for keeping secrets. Under the disguise of mass communication, messages can be transmitted to a select few while the rest of the population remains ignorant. Why it should be desirable to protect the masses from a little learning is clear from the increasing instances of passengers refusing to fly on certain airliners. It costs money to find replacement jets or 200 hotel rooms for the night. Far cheaper for the captain to be able to say 'Everything's OK' and for him to be believed without question.
Many allegedly informative texts aim at a similar level of acceptance.
If they succeed, part of it may be down to the familiar ploy of blinding with science. But fashion also plays a part. From time to time a paper will publish a long list of euphemisms used by firms sacking employees.
Now the guru of downsizing has recanted, but it's too late to save all the jobs. It might not have made much difference if people had insisted on calling a spade a spade, but it would certainly have made the act of sacking large numbers of people less glamorous - less impressive to those in the City who are apt to be impressed by the sayings of gurus.
In short, the manipulation of language usually has a purpose, or a porpoising effect, if you prefer. It aims to achieve something surreptitiously, whereas in the past, stirring oratory might have been necessary. Now, because this is the Information Age, a form of paranoia does the job for the effective communicator. People are told information is their most valuable asset.
Believing you can't have too much of a good thing, they seek it out wherever they can. They more they have, the more they worry that they may be missing the crucial item. So they extend their search - on to the Internet, for example. Eventually they reach a stage where they can't distinguish between information and propaganda.
The early church insisted on Latin, which no one but churchmen understood.
It helped preserve the mystery of religion. The early computer industry was also notorious for its inability to make itself understood, but because it was almost entirely populated by people who felt uncomfortable unless they could number their paragraphs and write in the passive voice. It is ironic that the fruits of their barely articulate labours should herald something referred to as an Information Age. At the same time, it is wholly appropriate that the information content should be so questionable.
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