Archive for March 10th, 2012

In a joke that circulated on the Internet some years ago, a man in a hot air balloon is lost. He asks a person on the ground for help, and is told he is fifty feet off the ground, and at such and such a longitude and latitude. “You must be an engineer,” he replies. “Everything you told me is technically true, but besides the point.”

The joke goes on to compare the balloonist to management, since he doesn’t know where he’s going but now he blames the person on the ground. Both comments strike me as all too true, but, since I spend my working life with developers without being one myself, I appreciate the first one the most.

Not that all developers are so literal-minded, or even most. If anything, many free software and open source developers are not only fiercely intelligent, but formidably well-rounded, their brains roaming all over the contents of Wikipedia. If, like me, your idea of a good time is a wide ranging discussion over a couple of drinks, you couldn’t ask for better company. Personally, I am happy to call such programmers friends and friendly acquaintances.

Occasionally, though, you come across one who is so literal-minded that talking to them is not only frustrating, but also an exercise in keeping your temper. Some are lacking entirely in perspective, and will fix on a point that is minor or irrelevant.

Often, they fix entirely on denotation (the meaning you find in a dictionary), ignoring entirely all connotation (meanings and implications that come to be associated culturally with a word or concept).

Recently, for example, I came across a person who became fixated on the meaning of “innovation.” Although the topic was at best secondary to the discussion, they insisted that “to innovate” was not necessarily synonymous with “to improve,” and, although no one was arguing, quoted a dictionary definition as proof. They were right, and had we been living a few centuries ago, they would have been even more correct, because, before the Industrial Revolution, “innovator” was very nearly synonymous with “meddler” or “trouble-maker.”

However, had they looked at a thesaurus, they would have found that the word has always meant both “to change” and “to improve.” Had they looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, they would also have found that “to improve” has been the dominant meaning for decades.

For that matter, they could have looked to the context of the discussion, which left no doubt how “innovate” was being used. But they were so literal-minded that they were utterly unable to judge the relevance, let alone the correctness of their point.

Similarly, another developer recently suggested that free speech was really a reference to the American First Amendment, and that free speech was only concerned with government censorship. The argument is ethnocentric, free speech having been an issue long before the existence of the United States, but, like the reply to the balloonist, is only technically correct.

Because of legal rights like those granted by the American constitution, “free speech” has been expanded culturally into what might be more accurately called “free discussion.” From a completely literal perspective, there is no reason why free speech should be used to argue equal time for opposing views on television and radio. However, in modern industrial culture, making sure that all voices are heard has become an important value, so the concept of free speech has been extended beyond basic human rights. You are not going to silence those who throw about accusations of censorship by insisting as the developer does that the concept applies only to actions by the government. In our modern sensibilities, it applies to anyone.

What these two examples have in common is that they assume that connotations are not part of meaning. Probably, the people making this mistake had no idea of what they were doing, but the result was that they invalidated what they had to say because their arguments were incomplete.

I have no idea why such people believe that they can argue without taking connotation. I can only guess. Maybe because sticking to denotation is simpler and more definite? Or are they unable to perceive connotation, and not willfully ignoring it, as I sometimes conclude in my frustration with their limited viewpoints? I have no idea, but either way, their viewpoint seems both unusually cramped and often beside the point. Probably, they are endlessly frustrated because so few others are will to concede what to them seems a straightforward point.

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