The distortion of terms

I was warned. But, as usual, I disregarded the words of caution and dove right in. Currently, the Vaclav Smil book I’m reading—Energy: A Beginner’s Guide—isn’t too dry, but I suspect that the deeper I get into the work, the more like a textbook it’ll become. But we shall see.

The book itself begins by coming to terms. Smil discusses the term “energy” and it’s common associates—units of measurement, for instance—and seeks to align the reader’s understanding with his own. This is an admirable aim. After all, for worthwhile communication to take place it is not enough for two people to speak the same language; the words they use must mean the same thing. If Smil understands the term “energy” to mean, “any process that produces a change (of location, speed, temperature, composition) in an affected system (an organism, a machine, a planet)”, and a reader’s conception of “energy” is, “kinetic energy transferred through the application of force over a distance”, then the two will talk past each other. They’ll be using the same word but meaning different things, and so communication will be impaired.

But communication ain’t insight. The former requires, in most cases, a coming to terms. The latter requires, more often than not, a distortion of terms.

Meanings on their own are meaningless. They hang in a culturally agreed upon framework that propagates solely because the majority continue to employ it. But the evolution of culturally agreed upon frameworks comes from minorities—people who deliberately or accidentally, maliciously or with the best intentions, change common meanings.

For example, the concept of “work”. In antiquity, “work” was something that the unwashed masses did. It was the concern of peasants and slaves and tradespeople. Gentlemen and gentleladies were above such dirty pursuits. In the Renaissance, this conception of “work” shifted into a dichotomy of ignoble and noble work. Anything concerning the arts—and in some instances, certain illustrious trades—was considered prestigious and worthy of virtue. Farming the land and fishing the seas, however, were still less esteemed. Then came the Enlightenment, and close on its heels, the Industrial Revolution. From then onwards, labor was virtue embodied. To labor was the most human of things and those who avoided their own labor whilst exploiting the labor of others were, to some extent, ridiculed (not the upper classes though).

As you can see, throughout time, those who talk of “work” could mean something noble or something base. Something dirty or something essential to a person’s life. Something to flee from or something to actively pursue. Bad for communication, good for insight, good for thinking about the concept at hand. For example, the person who idolises work and the person who goes out of his way to avoid it both have a chance at contributing value to society at large—albeit in a very different manner. This is on a cultural, societal or collective level, though.

On an individual basis, undermining a common meaning can offer further illumination. For example, if you work as a marketing exec and the common conception of “marketing” in your company is work involving social media, PR and current customer relationships, then your sphere of activity is confined. If, however, you redefine “marketing” to mean “anything that gets, keeps and satisfies customers” then your possible sphere of activity expands. If you can persuade your company of the validity of this new meaning then “marketing” gains can be made in research and development, in customer service and in the product design department.

Coming to terms is about enabling effective communication between multiple parties. Distorting the terms is a simple and oft-overlooked way to unlock insight. So instead of converging with others upon meanings, try diverging.