Geekspeak, Jargon, and Lingo

The BBC recently filed a report on the confusion that many users feel over geekspeak. It starts:

The average home computer user is bamboozled by technology jargon which is used to warn people about the most serious security threats online.

Many are often left vulnerable because they have no idea what they are supposed to be protecting themselves against, a survey for AOL UK has found.

Confusing “geek speak” used by experts and media included “phishing”, “rogue dialler”, “Trojan” and “spyware”.

On one hand, the article has a point. The jargon used for even the most basic desktop tasks in the computer industry can sound complex and arcane. It definitely doesn’t help when you combine the often devestatingly broad education (usually self-education) of most geeks with a sense of whimsy. Possibly the most common example of this is “spam,” so named because of a Monty Python routine where everything on the menu has spam, but it’s not something you want.

On the other hand, what is to be done? Like most technical fields, these terms are used to define, categorize, and explain without using five words where one can do. It’s the classic tradeoff of having to learn a larger vocabulary to use fewer, more-specific words. Since computer geeks have an easier time memorizing new terms, they tend towards more of them than some fields. Nevertheless, listening to biologists, electrical engineers, and other experts going on about their fields of work can cause even well-educated non-experts eyes to glaze over.

It also doesn’t help that the computer is such a versatile tool when compared to a car, or the¬†VCR’s that so many people have difficulty setting the time on. Computer makers try to make operating a computer look as easy as walking, but in terms of abstract complexity it’s at least as complicated in the number of subsystems and interactions as your typical car. While many people know enough about basic physical processes that they are fairly comfortable with their understanding of how a car works, the level of knowledge required to simply operate a car versus fixing a car is generally pretty low.

Sadly, operating a computer effectively is a far more complicated than operating a car. You really have to be closer to car mechanic than mere driver. Given how many supposedly mature adults cannot competently operate a car, this is disquieting.

So, part of the problem is that geeks come up with a lot of names and terms that seem flatly ridiculous to non-geeks. They use more of them because they tend to be pretty smart and can memorize these meanings pretty easily.

Another part of the problem is that these devices are far more complicated to operate reliably than people are led to believe.

Finally though, part of the problem is willful ignorance on the part of users. Many people who are perfectly willing to put in time for drivers education classes are not willing to proactively study the operation of something far more complex before they try to use it.