Thursday 16 October 2008

Dumbing down: ambiguity vs precision

Dumbing down can occur in many ways, some more insidious than others. One of the most dangerous forms relates to the misuse of ambiguity and precision.

To illustrate what I mean consider the following sentence, "Standing next to a passing express train is quite an experience".

The statement is evocative because it conveys the context of danger in a manner most can relate to. But why, and how?

It contains two elements that make it work, and they are opposite in nature: 'express train' and 'next'.

'Express train' defines in an unambiguous way; we understand the big heavy object, the speed and the power. Not every train can be called an express either, and so the phrasing is precise.

'Next' on the other hand is ambiguous, its scope of meaning quite extensive. Earth is next to Mars; I am living next to the city; in water the hydrogen atoms are next to each other.

Neither precision nor ambiguity are wrong as such, it depends how they are used. Suppose I change the above sentence to, "Standing 2.3 metres away from a passing express train is quite an experience". It doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

The statement needs the strictly defined object as the main reference, otherwise the reference itself negates its purpose. It also needs the wider scope of the spatial configuration. Not because a distance of 2.3 metres is not informative, but because the word 'next' relates to a sufficient number of experiences to identify what it means to be in close proximity to something. That 'something', part of so many patterns our mind has processed over the years, informs us about the importance of being 'next', regardless of what we are next to.

In other words, 'next' has become the symbol for a particular, multifaceted experience and it is exactly because the scope is left open-ended the symbol has power.

Therefore 'express train' relies on its precision to inform us, but 'next' does so due to its inherent ambiguity.

Swap the types around and the sentence becomes downright silly: "Standing 5.6 metres away from something is quite an experience". See what I mean?

An analogy to the above would be two versions of a basic scenario. There is a dark room with an object inside. In version one the object is a small coin and we use an average light bulb for illumination. In version two the object is a big statue and we use a strong but narrow beam of light. In which case would the object be more easily identified?

Surely the relatively dim and diffuse light from the bulb would help us find the coin quite quickly, but a narrow beam of light needs much more work to even find the statue, let alone tell us what it is.

Symbols as open-ended representations have their uses but care needs to be taken what they are paired with. By the same token, precise definitions are important but their relationship with the real must hold. Remove either from the context they need in order to function properly and confusion results or the message gets altered, often insidiously so.

At the time of writing SBS Television is running a commercial heralding its upcoming series on indigenous history in Australia. The voice-over tells of over three hundred nations across the continent, and indigenous culture is referred to as a civilisation lasting thousands of years.

Three hundred 'nations'? A 'civilisation'? There were hundreds of tribes; yet a nation represents a formally configured society, featuring documented evidence of its instrumentalities, purposefully organised layers of activity systems, general infrastructure. A civilisation implies evolutionary achievement, literature, technology, philosophical and scientific endeavours. None of them can be found among indigenous people, wherever in the world they are.

To have the meaning of words transposed from a precise definition to the unconstrained scope of a symbol, merely because the symbol per se sounds attractive, introduces ambiguity where it does not belong while at the same time neutering the power of language to inform and instruct.

It is dumbing down at its most dangerous.

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