Network Opinion: spare us the jargon and speak in plain English

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Having "problems with your legacy systems environment"? Try checking your "mission-critical client/server"? Perhaps you should get in touch with your "single multi-vendor service provider"? But does your "provider" have "global multi-vendor capability"?

Any idea what all this is about? They are not extracts from an English comprehension exam, although the perpetrators should be forced to take such a test. OK, you have probably guessed that it is computer jargon, but that hardly sheds any more light on its meaning. In short, it is gibberish, of a kind that computer specialists seem to have a special talent for. All these phrases are taken from recent speeches by senior executives of well-known computer companies, when they were "explaining" new products or business strategies to journalists and potential customers.

It is hardly a new phenomenon. The bits and bytes brigade have been abusing the English language ever since they brought out their first computer terminal. And to be fair, every specialised field produces its own jargon. However, the computer world has always been one of the worst offenders, inventing a complete, inpenetrable language. And as computers, the Internet and all things technological penetrate ever deeper into daily life, it is becoming impossible to ignore.

The irony of this deluge of Dalek-speak is that it comes as the industry is striving to persuade us to embrace computers as an essential component of the modern household. And with the birth of the network computer, we are told that it will become as easy to use as the television. Yet whenever you hear some techno-guru preach this message, they always undermine their case with an avalanche of unintelligible phrases.

In many cases, it seems that computer people are congenitally incapable of writing plain English. The general rule of techno-prose seems to be "use 10 words where one will do" and "find a complex way of stating the blindingly obvious".

"Rover has a policy of providing its engineers with the right tools to undertake their tasks in the business process," declares a Sun Microsystems brochure extolling the benefits of the new computer system it has installed for the car company, implying that others deliberately give their staff the wrong kind of equipment.

There are other charges that can be laid at the door of the computer industry for crimes against the English language. One of the oldest is constructing strings of words that mean something on their own and therefore sound as though they should mean something together. "Single multi-vendor service provider" is a classic example.

Hijacking nouns and turning them into verbs is another common offence. Programmers don't talk about "building" or "developing" a computer system. They talk about "architecturing",because it sounds more important and because they want to be part of the, largely male, club.

Bloated lists are a favourite technique for impressing gullible conference audiences. Oh dear, another example from Sun, one of the chief promoters of the easy-to-use network computer concept: "Java: A simple, object-oriented, distributed, interpreted, robust, secure, architecture neutral, portable, high-performance, multi-threaded and dynamic language."

Judging from the publicity material for its latest Web server, Oracle, too, has a penchant for the incomprehensible: "Entire multi-screen applications can be packaged and treated as single Oracle7 database objects, offering Oracle's full range of automatic dependency checking, scalability, parallelism and replication features."

Computer people slip easily into euphemism. Asked if his company was planning to lay off any people at a recent press conference, a senior executive of the US giant Digital responded thus: "There are some areas where we are decreasing the labour intensity."

So what, you might say. If computer nerds want to talk like that, let them. But they are not in a vacuum. We are in the midst of a technological revolution that these so-called nerds are driving. We need to be able to penetrate their language to judge for ourselves whether we really want their vision and their gadgets.

There is also a Big Brother quality to some of the language used by the computer industry, matching the fears many people have about the implications of a totally networked, "wired" world. George Orwell, who made a point of attacking politicians for the way they abused the English language to obscure their true intentions, might well have recognised this trend.

Yet the industry already has the upper hand. We feel we should know what phrases like "mission-critical client/server" mean and fear embarrassment if we ask. How often do you hear of companies regretting their costly and unnecessary investment in some multi-gizmo computer system, which was made because they were bowled over by the impressive-sounding jargon?

There is a simple solution to this: the computer industry should be told to use plain English.

ANDREW NORTH

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