Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Where language comes too short…

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on December 13, 2009

Spending some time abroad as I just did in Thailand where you have to speak with the local population in English, when both of you aren’t native English speakers can sometimes result in funny misunderstandings. Not a problem at all, because you mostly just want to order some food or try to arrange some accommodation. In many occasions you end up with what you intended, or something close to it, because you can interact directly, and as a tourist the context is often not that difficult.

When you think about online means of discussing, debating, or other kinds of asynchronous communication, it is hard to express yourself as you precisely mean it, and maybe even harder to interpret the text in the way the sender meant it. It can get even more complicated if there is being a response which is asynchronous as well and that communication suffers from the same expression and interpretation problems. While these ‘problems’ can result into unexpected (and sometimes brilliant) responses,  it are the disadvantages of written text. Not to mention the misunderstandings because some people are not native English speakers, assuming the text is written in that language.

The discussions about systems in earlier posts suffered from these problems as well. I’m convinced that the most of us do not vary that much in what we really mean, however there are some nuances in comparing an organization with a system or not, for example. While these discussions are very fruitful, and we share insights that can make us think slightly different about these subjects than before, there is a fundamental problem that is hard to overcome: written language. The problem with written language is that it comes too short in expressing yourself precisely as you mean it, and it comes short again when the written text is interpreted by the reader. By that time, at the least there are already two moments that change the initial meaning of the author. Hence, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The Internet is a place where many communications exist as asynchronous written text. This type of communication suffers from these shortcomings, and is an area where many improvements can be made. The theories of knowledge management can be useful here, for example, how do you deal with tacit knowledge? Can it be externalized and how? How do we make sense of the information that we have access to? What other information or knowledge do you use when interpreting new information? Just some questions that illustrate the problems of written language. Written language alone is often not enough for exchanging information learning, it are the (social) practices that makes us really understand and learn.

Overcoming these problems is one of the main challenges of improving asynchronous online communication and collaboration, there is a long way to go here. For this blog, I will continue in written text, and I’ll add an image now and then. The conversations that follow from it are far too valuable to change the way of communicating and expressing my thoughts. The shortcomings of written text result in conversations that you could never expect to be, and could probably never occur like that when everybody interpreted the text the way you initially meant it. I’m sure some more posts are needed too have the concept of systems thinking and complex adaptive systems refined, and I’m even more curious to the responses they will get. So far, I am thankful for the many insights you all showed me, that forced me to read more about it and changed the way I think of systems for example. Nice side effects of the shortcomings of written text…

3 Responses

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  1. […] Dit blogartikel was vermeld op Twitter door John Tropea, Bas Reus. Bas Reus heeft gezegd: The shortcomings (and advantages) of written text and language, resulting in a new blogpost: http://wp.me/pzezV-7Z @johnt @sourcePOV #km […]

  2. Tom Gibbons said, on December 15, 2009 at 20:09

    I actually think one of the good things about the ‘written’ element of many social media or KM frameworks is that there is greater tolerance for the idea of being misunderstood. This is especially true of Twitter where you are almost guaranteed to be misunderstood quite often with your 140 characters. Written language and literacy have dramatically changed the way we communicate and how we understand language. We have come to expect that what we say, especially in written form, should be perfectly understood by anyone reading it. One manifestation of this is that most management training and management processes deal with getting the message ‘right’. In terms of Mead’s Gesture/Response concept this means that by getting the gesture right you should be able to predict the response……. a big problem but sells lots of training…

    If we weren’t so afraid of being misunderstood we might be able to better realize that it is actually the misunderstandings that occur in language where the novelty and innovation occur. The probability of novelty occurring in a perfectly understood message is remote.

    Walter J. Ong’s work on orality and literacy is excellent in capturing how literacy has changed our thinking about language and its use.

  3. Bas Reus said, on December 15, 2009 at 21:39

    Tom, you’re absolutely right that novelty is occurring more often when we misunderstand each other, or, when we look in the ‘wrong’ direction. Look at subtle jokes, where double meanings of words are being used to fool or confuse someone, and soon afterwards the joke is understood. That can be hilarious, and is one of the great powers of language. Of course language can be used and misused is many ways, such as some political propaganda.

    What I will try to accomplish in future posts is to get the concepts of systems right, or at least try to get the ambiguity out. I really believe many of us don’t differ that much in our understanding, but getting the concept more clear helps us in being more productive while having a dialogue. I have good hope this will work out in written text, by understanding and misunderstanding.


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