RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is techno-speak making your mind spin?

May 28, 2007

A BBC online story from November got me thinking about funny looks. I get those a lot, and not just because most mornings I look like a poorly repaired sidewalk. I get them because of the words I use. But I can't help it. Nobody in technology can help it. When we talk about technology, we always sound like we're mumbling jargon, even when we're not.

The article (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6118828.stm) dealt with the frustration workers have with supposedly cool business jargon, like "drilling down" into a problem or doing a "brain dump." I remember my own bewilderment when I went to my first meeting where an attendee referred to a markerboard as the "parking lot." The use of jargon is pernicious, because the uninitiated are often unwilling to admit being baffled. You always want to be one of the cool kids, even well into your business career.

Technology has given us a whole new way to put glazed looks on people's faces, and I've regretted that more times than I can count with my shoes on. Most technology isn't visible to users, and its terminology is even less so.

You might use your desk phone and understand it (although few people take full advantage of all the features). But the PBX, switch, copper pairs and trunk line are all stacked somewhere else out of sight, and mercifully so. The terminology about phones is similarly hidden from view, and again thankfully so. Phone company employees use their own vast language of acronyms and initialisms (www.lexistelecom.com/phone-system-jargon.html). It both shortens their talk time and gives them a group identity.

All of us in technology have our linguistic shortcuts. The problem is that we're often called upon to bridge between our own comfortable world and the world you probably inhabit, the user space that benefits from technology but doesn't understand it. Many users suspect us of slinging jargon to cover up mistakes and ignorance. True enough in some cases. But often it's just the grinding together of two incompatible worlds.

The technology that drives the online world, for example, seems familiar to most businessfolk, but when they talk to techies, they swiftly find out how little they know. When techies are challenged to explain or justify something in our realm, we often blanch internally, because we know what's coming:

"The reason you couldn't get your stock quotes was because your browser couldn't see the application server through our firewall." Suddenly, the room becomes a mini-Tower of Babel, its members stricken with language barriers. Suspicion follows frustration around the table. They think we're hiding behind incomprehensible words, like a White House economist.

But we're not hiding. We're actually being exact with our language. A "firewall" may even be familiar to most people by now. It's a cyber-sentinel, made of software and hardware, that permits only certain communications to pass, blocking those we consider undesirable. Like any sentinel, it makes mistakes. An "application server" is software that figures out what to do with the commands you send it from the browser, then follows instructions.

A stock ticker application runs on an application server, which is protected behind a vigilant firewall. If any of those things malfunction, you don't get stock quotes. We're not evading your accusation of being without stock quotes. We're explaining the problem.

Maybe it's better to just say, "Hey, yeah, we saw that and we fixed it" and not offer enlightenment. Technology is hard to understand. Techies don't always understand it. You'd be surprised how often we look puzzled at one another, too. A previous boss once addressed my cause-and-effect irritation by declaring, "Don't explain it, just fix it."

Even old, familiar applications can be strewn with linguistic potholes. Microsoft tries to keep these terms hidden from you, but its success is mixed, because you can't always soften the inevitable. In Microsoft Word, for instance, to do a mail merge you need a "data source." What else would you call a data source? Database? Even worse. Address source? Less precise, more prone to misunderstanding.

Word uses TrueType fonts. So what are those, and why would you include them in a document? You can insert an "object" into a page. What's an object, and how is it different from a picture or a text box?

I've spent decades explaining technology to non-techies, and even with education, training, PowerPoint, and all that experience, it's still hard to do. Techno-speak is probably our greatest barrier to mutual understanding. Many of the concepts aren't tough to understand, but many others require background in computer science. The unfamiliar nouns alone are killers, and when we throw in all the metaphors like "ship it down the wire," the audience's heads do a collective 360.

I guess I'll just have to drill down a little further into the problem.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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