Friday, January 16, 2015

On Endangered Words

I am through with a fairly busy Conference Week. My silence on this blog was because of this, though the reason may be slightly less obvious. It is not that I did not have time, I actually never have any time to write this blog, but because I was in the middle of too many words through the week, and I did not add more to it. 

Conferences are wordy affairs, as some people they should be. They are usually places without windows, full of people carrying around conflicting agendas and expectations, judging the person sitting next to them with the corner of an eye to see whether they are worth wasting a business card on. They are words, words, words, and indeed, some numbers, graphs and charts. They are about big statements, and going by the consistency of the statements that get made, never to be followed up again till the next conference, when those statements are to be remembered and repeated. 

But conferences are also great places to chart the fortune of words, as they rise and fall. It is common, in our very verbose civilisation, for one interest or the other to own some words. This is indeed the objective of all marketing, as Al Ries and Jack Trout will say, to own a word. But even they may have been modest. Our brave new age is about taking over words as they were, and loading them with meanings that serve particular interests. If conferences achieve anything, it is that they are the arena of transmutation of words - words old and new - and they are to be remembered not for actions that follow, because there is none, but the legacy of the words they leave behind.

If there are any consequences of conferences, it is this word trail that shape our lives. In a way, this legacy is truly captured by the whole Point-Oh thing that came out of a conference. Words often get there Point-Oh version after a conference, without something like Point-One (or indeed, Point-One-One) version inbetween because if you are not talking really big, you are not having a conference. Last time I checked, the world was on 3.0, but is waiting for a Davos for its 4.0 nirvana!

And, indeed, as conferences create words, it also kills them. My last few days felt like the obituary of skills. The point, of course, is that I was getting used to Skills with a big S and skills with a small s, but as it must be at these conferences, it is about claiming the words and changing their meaning. So, it did happen, nuances were pushed aside and the s-word was firmly claimed by bureaucrats and wonks. Some of the things I learned is that skills have nothing to do with education and skills can be taught in 3-month, 6-month or 1-year courses. Skills also seemed to be an one-off, wearable (another conference word) affair, which the government knows best about. What skills are required are to be decided by skills councils, who will be research and convene over a long period of time and come up with a skills map which will provide a clear guideline on what needs to be taught (the whole thing reminded me, oddly, of my first visit to Poland, where I was slightly daunted to approach the reception of any office as they are called secretariat).

The point, of course, is that such expropriation of meaning may make a word die. Surely, we may not be that concerned about endangered words as we should be about extinction of a species, but look what happened to - for example - rationality. Rational was to question everything, as Kant would say, though he meant not to question God and a few other things. But his successors will really take the word there, and it became about following reason in everything. Then came the Economists and as they took over the world, the word came to mean not to follow reason, but to behave in a certain way as the various models assume that one should behave. Eventually, this will come a full circle when being rational will mean behaving in a completely unreasonable way, with disastrous consequences for everyone and everything. The word, now it seems, is out of favour.

This can happen to skills. Indeed, there are other words I heard a lot of. Ecosystems! So, finally, many have woken up from megalomania to think that one cant change the world in the shower, and it needs an ecosystem. But the ecosystem that gets spoken about in conference circuits is nothing like the ecosystem as we know them, an imperfect muddy affair full of diversity, but it is to be rather like an exclusive social club, where everyone is of the same type. This word looks seriously endangered, because bankers love them and they are usually November-men, who leave nothing standing in their wake. A few more conferences, and I am sure we would cleanse the ecosystem of any diversity, and arrive at a bleached word of conformity. It may sound smart, and even green, but all meaning will be sucked out of eco-system shortly.

We live in the midst of endangered words. The most unsocial of the activities, peeping into private lives, intrusion, interruption, have become Social. Communities have come to mean you sit at home most of the time.  Critical Thinking has become a corporate requirement, that of finding ways to sell ideas that corporations want everyone else to believe in. Participation means being somewhere else than where you actually are, as being attentive means caring for your devices more than your companions. It is an exciting time, for those who want new words, but slightly despairing, if, like me, you are after any meaning. That is how I am signing off my conference week.







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