Wednesday, June 20, 2012


When communicating a new concept, conceptual framework or system, it's a good idea to name the concept, the framework's components or the system. For example, rather than talking about a system that can do x, y and z or your theory on how the mind works. You simply talk about, the Zeta system of Mental Dynamism. It's just good marketing.

If the name is really good, before you know it, people will be referring to your concept or theory by name even if they have no idea of what it actually means or implies. Not only that, but people will start to treat your concept or theory as more than that. For them, the name will represent something that actually exists.

There are many examples of this. Freud coined (or at least made popular) the phrase unconscious (or unconscious mind).  It's a theory on how the mind works. It postulates that we each have a dark and hidden part of ourselves that can not be fully seen or understood.

It's a concept. 

It doesn't actually exist.

There is no unconscious mind or subconscious; for that matter, "mind" is also just a concept that doesn't actually exist.

Another example is autism. There is no such "thing" as autism. Instead, there are collections of symptoms (none of which are biological) that when displayed in certain combinations lead one to the diagnosis of autism. Autism is a concept. It doesn't actually exist.

The same goes for terms like democracy and socialism, work and play, right and wrong.  All are concepts. Each is something one might be able to identify via some real-world manifestation. Yet the manifestation isn't the concept. It's linked to the concept, but the links are dependent on the perceiver of the links. Some may see no links at all. Some may hold a different concept going by the same name.

They're concepts.

They're ways of thinking about a thing. 

They're not the thing.

The only value of a concept is in its usefulness and usefulness depends completely on what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to help your child respond differently than she is, then "knowing" she has autism is only useful insofar as it helps you achieve your goal. If your trying to become a better guitar player, then knowing or not knowing various aspects of music theory is only useful if it helps you to become a better guitar player (and better is up to you.)

I like naming concepts. It improves the efficiency of communications.

However, when one gets comfortable using the name of a concept without fully understanding the concept, there are side effects. The side effects are amplified when the one doing so is a teacher or in a position of authority. Before you know it, you've got armies of people using terms representing things that don't actually exist as though they did (take "global warming" for example). Further, since no one challenges them on or even asks about the meaning of the term, they take it for granted that they themselves understand.

Lately I've started asking people who've done well in college calculus to define calculus in plain english. You would think that it'd be easy for someone who got A's in math. I've only encountered two people who could do it; one needed a lot of hints and the other has since passed away. Yet those very same people claimed they "knew" calculus. In fact, what they knew were the names of concepts and for a period of time how to piece them together in useful ways.

When I worked at AT&T, I was often invited to be part of projects that involved the development of new concepts. The projects each started with a small, well-funded, specialized team working outside the mainstream. However, once the mainstream got wind of the project, it would inevitably balloon into a large project involving anyone who had a political stake in its outcome. Within a month or two there'd be meetings involving seventy or so people "developing a new concept".

As I sat in those meetings, I began to notice a phenomenon that I later named, "Pod-Speak". People who participated in the meetings quickly began employing the terms and phrases peculiar to the new concept. They used them properly in sentences. Others responded affirmatively to their statements. 

Yet, when I would ask a question, it would become immediately clear that no one actually understood what they'd said. If I or someone like me had not been there asking, none of them would have ever acknowledged that they'd not understood (neither speakers nor listeners). 

After a bit of playing political musical chairs the project would end up being staffed solely by the best pod-speakers, none of which knew anything about the subject matter.

Do you speak pod?

Happy Wednesday,


  1. My 9-year-old's fluency and facility with language has been a great deterrent to pod-speak at home. We all find ourselves using a lot more precision in our words knowing that he will seize on any little crack he spots.

    And definitions! There's nothing as clarifying as attempting to define terms you've been using for ever.

  2. Sree, I think you've hit it. If I might paraphrase...

    There's nothing that forces clarity and understanding better than explaining something to a 9-year-old.

    Therefore, there's nothing better than a 9-year-old asking questions or, alternatively, everyone should ask questions as though they were nine years old.


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