In defence of computer jargon

The computer industry’s vocabulary exists for good reasons and can’t be discarded

Complex, misunderstood and often accused of geekiness and deliberate awkwardness, the computer world frequently gets a bad press from those that refuse to penetrate its network perimeter.

One frequent accusation is that IT is bound up with jargon and that “IT people” use a vocabulary that is hostile to interpretation by non-techies. That’s only true up to a point. It’s certainly the case that IT marketers spin three-letter abbreviations and acronyms the way rabbits excrete pellets but a lot of the everyday jargon is there for a reason.

Take a sentence like this:

The new Dell desktop PC has an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, 2TB hard drive and the latest Windows 10 OS. 

Well, admittedly it’s not a thing of beauty or prosody but it does possess utilitarian benefits if you know the basics of computers and you’re in the market for a new one. Dell is a well-known brand, most of us know the difference between a desktop and mobile, and a PC in this context will be understood as a personal computer.

Intel is virtually synonymous with microprocessors and most people will have some insight into this part acting as the ‘brains’ of the machine. As for 16GB we will be able to guess that GB stands for gigabytes given the surrounding context and that this will make our computer run software pretty fast given that my last computer had a quarter of the amount of RAM. And a 2TB hard drive? We know it’s referring to storage and there’s no easy way to immediately visualise how much that drive will accommodate but we can hazard a guess based on past experience that it’s a hell of a lot.

Now the writer could spell all this out, explaining how random access memory works or recounting just how many words or high-definition movies could be stored on that hard drive (and, presumably explaining, HD along the way) but the reader’s eyes would glaze over and pages would be turned in mounting frustration.

Similarly you could lose a term like ERP or CRM or even spell them out and call them enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management systems. You could even try to spell out exactly what these things do but it’s probably best not to if you’re writing for a specialist audience that knows about these things very well indeed.

So what we have here really is a sort of code of shared understanding, a shorthand for parsing to give you just enough information. And if we need to go deeper we have hypertext and Google.

Lots of the words we use are relatively new of course but then the industry is quite new. Few people criticise modern psychology for talking about psychoanalysis or ask to have words like ‘Freudian’ explained. We accept that as the world changes we sometimes need more words. That’s why the Oxford English Dictionary has new additions every year: ‘emoji’, ‘selfie’ and so on. You might as well tell the clock to stop ticking and birds to stop singing as to call for an end to all this.

Or put it this way, a person talking in the pub about football would never say something like the following:

Manchester United won in part because the full-back, a professional sportsman playing on the right hand side of the pitch in a mostly defensive role, overlapped with his winger (that is, swapping positions with the generally more attacking right-sided player), on several occasions, leading to many opportunities to create goal-scoring opportunities as the opposing, (left-sided and mostly defensive playing) full-back struggled after sustaining an injury to his Achilles tendon – the heel cord or tendo calcaneus – a part of the body that takes its name from the Greek hero of the Trojan War.

Neither would two people on a first date attempt to explain their exact emotions and physical reactions. Sometimes you have to rely on other people filling in the gaps.

When we talk about cloud computing, Big Data and malware we are actually calling on metaphor, the imagination, collective knowledge and more. The words are never quite good enough to do this complex technological world justice and we can agree or disagree on which ones we like and don’t like but really we are stumbling towards a better shared source of references. It’s just that the world keeps moving too quickly for us to ever have a hope of getting there.