“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
Before I dive into the heart of this month’s blog post, I first need to tell you two mini stories to help me illustrate a bigger point.
My first mini story. I’m not sure how many of you know this, but in South Africa (SA) we have divided time into increments that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. And we’ve done this using language. I have no idea how this phenomenon came to be or why, but in SA we don’t just use the words “Now”, “Soon” or “Later” to denote a particular interval of time. We also say “Now now” and “Just now”. These aren’t just cutesy words, they are actual time frames that are embodied within the South African psyche. When I first moved to the UK this was the source of a really weird conversation I had with my French line manager when I asked him if he needed a piece of work done now or if I could do it just now.
My second mini story. In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” Why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green? It turns out the ancient languages of Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew didn’t have a word for blue.
I tell you these stories to help me land a bigger point. Language shapes how we come to understand the world and our place within it. As a South African my reality of time is different to yours because I have language that shapes my understanding of time in a different way and it’s possible that without a word for the colour blue, there’s evidence to suggest that people from that time just didn’t see that colour at all.
Language has tremendous power to shape and make reality. Sticking with the theme of ‘two’, here are two examples of how language in the technology industry has helped to shaped the world around us.
#1: For decades we have measured the number of people who use technology products and services by monitoring the metric named ‘Users’. I feel it’s no surprise that what this has contributed to is the rise of a series of products and services that encourage addictive use by taking advantage of human vulnerabilities. What other kind of reality were we really hoping to shape by using a term that is straight out of the lexicon of substance abuse and addiction?
#2: When the power and transformative effects of AI first started to be discussed, many took to keynote stages around the world (mostly men) to talk about ‘Man vs Machine’. During this time we suddenly started to see a spike in robot imagery sitting alongside headlines that proclaimed the machines were coming for human jobs. Today, AI imagery is awash with images of robots and when you ask members of the general public what they think about when they think of ‘AI’ often they respond and say ‘Robots’. Robots and robotics is only one component of AI. To talk about AI is also to talk about computer vision technology, algorithms, machine learning, data and natural language processing. As a result, you have a misinformed public who think that AI is robots and that a walking, talking robot is going to be replacing them.
Misinformation turns informed, reasoned and engaging debate into a winner-takes-all shouting match.
Effective communication isn’t just about talking. We’ve spoken about the importance of active listening, but there is another key component of effective communication that needs to be mentioned; shared meaning. It’s not enough to simply have a common language; language needs a shared system of meaning if what you’re saying is to have any effect.
I realise that not everyone expresses themselves best using verbal language. Some people prefer visual language whereas others may feel they need to make something like an object, or compose music or choreograph a dance. However, the vast majority of ideas are communicated wholly or in part by verbal language. This is precisely the reason we need to pay attention to the words we use, as well as nurture and give importance to the skill of effective communication as much as we would to say, coding.
While code, born within the systems of science and engineering, governs the world of machines, traditional human languages govern the relationships, emotions and psyches of humans. As machines start speaking among us, it is important that we do not lose our voice. As our relationship with machines becomes ever more complex, we need to ensure we build a shared language and system of meaning with our devices. The focus needs to be on conversation, not commands. In addition, we need to improve our communication with one another. We need to build a language that will allow for a greater diversity of people to engage in the practice of ideation, design and developing of technology. This conversation should not be happening only among engineering and data science teams. And, because we are bold, let’s do even more than that. Let’s commit to gazing outward of our buildings and offices and focus on the people who use our products and services to ensure that we communicate honestly about how emerging technologies work in order to build and maintain trust. ‘Explainability’ and understanding is essential.
Your words are powerful. Choose them wisely.