Pirates are Cool.

Captured bits of life... Pirates at no extra cost. Arrrg. Also cool: Zombies, Aliens, Ninjas, Dinosaurs, Vikings, the Noble River Horse, the Sinister Octopi, Robots and Kittens.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Uncanny Valley of Academic Clarity

I have often found myself getting annoyed with one of my friends because of her penchant for complex verbosity - especially when it comes to matters of academic discourse. Setting aside what this might suggest about how intimidating I find people who are vastly more intelligent than myself, I am still forced to ask myself why I get annoyed. The answer, I think, lies in the fact that I have always been a supporter of simplified language in an effort to keep the meaning of an argument as clear as possible. She uses considerably more complex language so that her meaning cannot possibly be misunderstood. In short, while she enjoys big words, I like small ones, but we are both trying to be as clear as possible. Really this is a personal choice, but when I tried to puzzle out which is more effective in an academic setting, I realised that neither one of us has the high ground.

There are a few key principals we need to cover before we get into why I think our opposite view are equally flawed. First of all, we must understand the idea of an idea. That is to say, in the abstract, what is an idea? As with many philosophical concepts presented in my writing, these arguments can (and maybe should?) be refuted, but I am not attempting to set up an irrefutable definition of the concept of an idea. I am merely attempting to create a working definition for the purposes of this paper. Simply put, an idea is an absolute that exists in a person's mind, but it exists without articulation. To share an idea with the world, or even to fully understand it ourselves, it must be processed through language. In an effort to make sure that the idea is conveyed properly, there are two routes we can take. The first is that of complex language, which in my infinite ability to let bias seep into my arguments, I will call verbosity. Verbosity carried a negative connotation of buffoonery (more on that later), but that is certainly not what I mean in this case. It is merely a convenient way of describing complex language and advanced vocabulary in one word. Remember, I like simple terms. And indeed, the second way ideas can be conveyed is through the use of simple language, a sort of Hemmingway-ian discourse.

The second basic concept we must understand is that of the uncanny valley. Without going into too much detail, as only a cursory understanding is necessary to set up my analogy, the uncanny valley is the point at which technology comes to resemble life so closely that we are repulsed by it. Robots cease to be cool (like pirates) when they start to look too much but not exactly like people. A robot that looks almost human is disgusting and terrifying - this is the concept that villains like The Terminator or the Cylons are based on. But, we must remember that at a certain point, technology can come to resemble life so closely no difference can be discerned, and thus the revulsion disappears.

What I would like to suggest is that there is an uncanny valley in language, but instead of producing disgust, it produces gibberish. The interesting thing about this uncanny valley of language is that it works in both directions. As you approach a certain level of verbosity or simplicity, language descends into gibberish. Yet, after a certain point, out of that gibberish comes profound ideas.

Consider Lucky in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. His monologue is notoriously difficult to memorise or deliver simply because it is pure gibberish. And yet, Vladimir and Estragon assert that Lucky's spewing of "Knowledge" is not only impressive, but profound. To them, at least, his ridiculous verbosity has passed the uncanny valley of language and moved into the realm of genius. Perhaps this was Beckett's way at poking fun at the institution of academia. I would like to think he too was somewhat annoyed with people who used big words in an effort to sound intelligent, and especially so when those people were lecturing in front of a class. In my experience, this sort of buffoonery does not seem to exist in the real world, but it is an amusing thought when you consider some of your less than inspiring educators.

In an effort to understand why neither my friend nor I has the high ground when it comes to expressing ideas, let’s pick apart the idea of the uncanny valley of language a little. Philosophers are notorious for attempting to express their ideas as exactly as possible. In the immortal words of John Donne, "Phenomenology means to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself." What John Donne has done here (get it?) is reduced language to something less than it is meant to be. Essentially, in an effort to preserve the meaning of his argument, Donne removed art from language. He has attempted to turn words into a science. This is doomed to failure. Language is supposed to be an art. What we have here is an example of simplification that has caused an idea to descend into gibberish. By attempting to make sure nobody could misunderstand what he meant by this sentence, John Donne assured that nobody would understand it the first time they read it. Spending some time with the language here will untangle the knot of self-reference, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience for those of us who do not enjoy complex logic puzzles. (It helps if you draw a diagram, by the way. Also, some context never hurts, if you're interested in phenomenology.) Phenomenology can also be described using much more traditional academic verbosity. Yet the mode of discourse does not seem to matter, the idea itself (much like the song) remains the same.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the uncanny valley of language, however, is the fact that it is entirely subjective. The curve of profundity/gibberish will actually shift depending on who is reading the text we are applying the idea to. It depends entirely on a number of different factors, including but probably not limited to affinity for the language in question, the level of education, the nature of education, and preference for verbosity or simplicity in language. For example, I might pick up a paper on neurobiology and find that I recognise one word in every three, and thus the verbosity of that text would cause it to descend into pure gibberish. But, the author of that paper could just as easily read Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" and find it a puzzlingly straightforward fourteen word poem, easily dismissed as liberal arts wishy-washy gibberish. What that neurobiologist does not recognise is that I, and indeed most English majors since 1913, have written multiple papers on those fourteen words and recognised so many subtexts and themes that entire volumes could be collected on it (and indeed Google tells me they have). It is all a matter of perspective.

So who is better, the neuroscientist or the English major? The answer, as I have suggested, is neither. My delightfully verbose friend taxes my vocabulary on a regular basis, and no doubt she gets frustrated with my simplification of terms, but neither one of us is more right than the other. We are each products of our own tastes and educations, and I often find that we argue about ideas we agree on, simply because we cannot agree on how to articulate them. Perhaps we are both in danger of slipping down that long slope into the realm of gibberish - but only when we're talking to each other.


  • At 3:27 PM, Blogger Stuart said…

    Hey James. Good post.

    As someone who has some experience with gibberish, and tries to effectively communicate with whoever, I find that your intended audience should be a significant factor in the choice from vocabulary. I also try for as simplified expression of thought as possible. I feel that this is in no way any less academic, it simply ensures that you have a full understanding of what you are talking about, and makes it less work for your audience to understand.

    On a side note James there is a show called a "Bit of Fry and Laurie". They have a sketch that demonstrate verbosity taken to realm of gibberish beyond anything I can comprehend.


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