Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Terminal Terminology


Don’t you hate movies or TV where someone walks into a bar and orders “a beer”—and gets it? What bartender doesn’t ask what kind (or rattle off a list)? Even if we as buyers don’t know exactly what we want, you can bet sellers will do their best to close the deal. They will, that is, unless they’re stupid. Who in business would be that stupid?

One example, more often in government than business, is bureaucracy. Even though bureaucrats supposedly exist to serve clients, the one in your face is an impenetrable barrier—if you don’t know the magic word. In the hands of a obstinate bureaucrat, terminology can be a deadly weapon.

When bureaucrats insist we use their precise terminology, they don’t care that it’s just obscure jargon to us. Where else do we encounter such pointless fixity of purpose? Computers, of course.

What does a computer program’s tiny Help button have in common with the massive Oxford English Dictionary? The same thing it has in common with the Google search engine: they all demand exact terminology for what we seek.

Before computers, we had to know how to spell a word to find it in a print dictionary. Now, computer dictionaries show us words that sound alike. However, some software offering homophones are less than helpful, e.g., when Google suggested “fish” when I entered “phish”! DuckDuckGo didn’t, and it knew I wanted Amsler (the eye chart) when I typed Amstel. (Google didn’t.)

Old wise saying: Ask the right questions. Modern digital corollary: To find anything on the Internet, it is necessary to ask questions rightly. I.e., the success of a search often depends on phrasing the search query to match the existing data. In some cases (like Wolfram Alpha or Siri) syntax is critical. In most other cases, the key is the exact word or phrase. The difficulty is due to the lack of synonyms for almost all special terminology, whether words or phrases.

In the final analysis, terminology is the one preeminent problem for every search. How can you ask a question, if you don’t know what to ask for or how to ask for it? Unlike horseshoes or hand grenades, close counts for nothing.

Terminological: Uncontrolled growth of terminology leading to information deficiency and death.

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One thought on “Terminal Terminology

  1. JW in Jax on said:

    This could (and should) be expanded into a book. It’s like the smarter the “answer” technology gets, the way dumber it is. Searching for “help” in many software programs, esp Microsoft Word, has me thinking that the designers of the software NEVER used it and have no idea what a normal person might encounter. Are the programs anti-intuitive or is it just that what I think is a VERY obvious question never occurred to them. One of the biggest and perhaps most common problems with both the software interface and the help button is that the people who designed the software know where everything is so they don’t wonder what it’s like if someone isn’t THEM. Is the problem with Empathy? Is there a class in empathy in their college courses? I guess I should look for the Help button for that answer.

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