Science exists to provide new answers about our world – or at least ask good questions. The process of doing this leads to new discoveries or perspectives that demand paragraphs of thought be condensed down into handy new words. That is the natural process that creates jargon. There are simply times when one word, no matter how strange, is far easier than many.
When the science or philosophy is being used to develop new systems of thought for people – political, economic, or in communications– the use of jargon creates barriers that separate the class of those “in the know” from the masses. This is sometimes done very deliberately. But whatever the motive, jargon creates a barrier to entry that prevents new ideas from being properly democratized. The more social the field of study the more dangerous and counter-productive this is.
Social Media has this tendency, but it is far from alone. Many fields of practice and study need a team of dedicated and ruthless translators if they are every going to advance and make vital new connections.
I’d like to start with one of my favorite examples, something which is about the most arcane thing in the world– national central banking and the maintenance of currencies in the foreign exchange (ForEx) markets. This affects everything from the price of tea in China to whether or not a factory is better opened in Michigan or Malaysia. In a global economy that is strained to the breaking point big changes are coming that will directly affect everyone’s wallet. But if you get a series of experts on the teevee to explain them they often slip into jargon like “Currency War” and “Quantitative Easing” that doesn’t illuminate a thing. Someday I’ll have to tackle “Liquidity Trap” more directly than I have.
Barataria is full of many words to explaining concepts, often doing little more than translating the jargon into English. My success at it is for you to judge.
The field of Social Media has its own set of jargon that can be intimidating for newcomers. Some of it is necessary to describe platforms that do need to have some name. Other terms, like “crowdsourcing”, are not as useful. Anyone who wants this idea to catch on and become a universal standard is better off describing it as collaborative problem solving or, better yet, team problem solving. That’s common English that takes up a bit more space – but it invites people to participate. Anything else is exclusive and works against the nature of the idea itself. Use the term “crowdsourcing” and the only people you’ll have participate are those in the know – people more or less like you.
Public planning processes have become full jargon, something which rankles me no end. Every time I hear that a well meaning group is going to “conduct a listening session to receive input from stakeholders” I know that at least half the people that should be there are going to be turned off and not show up. That makes the process less effective and works directly against the stated intent of what everyone is there to accomplish. People who are affected by a public plan are not stakeholders, they are neighbors. You want them to be there you have to talk to them where they live – literally.
The world we live in is one where scientific methods are being applied to nearly everything. Manufacturing is highly focused on statistical methods for quality control. Economics has gone down a road that has a lot of math on the milestones. Good “metrics” are critical to the success of any Social Media campaign as new hypotheses are tested. Jargon is a natural by-product of the process of specializing our world into disciplines that have, at their core, some kind of detailed learning and study.
Yet this process works against democracy because it limits the ability of the people affected to understand the new tools and perspectives that are being developed. What we need, more and more, are good translations of jargon rather than the blunt application of new skills. A connected and open society demands that its citizens are a part of the mechanisms that run their lives, something which has started to seem like a luxury.
The way out of this, I think, is two-fold. People like myself should be able to make a living by translating what the specialists are saying in the popular press. But that is also a specialty that can become dangerously loaded with jargon if we’re not careful. The most important thing is for everyone, regardless of what fancy degree they have, to be careful about their jargon and openly invite people into their conversations. It is all about democracy, after all. The more we practice it in our daily speech the better off we’ll all be.
This post was written by Erik Hare and originally published on Barataria. Follow him on Twitter:@wabbitoid