"The Occasion of Great Wrangling and Obscurity"





Everybody's got their troubles... Here's something I found online earlier:

In a comment on one of Jeffrey’s blog posts, Tantek wrote:

We as a community that is learning/relearning/teaching all this stuff need to vigilantly clarify what’s what rather than calling things “HTML5″ that are not actually HTML5 (e.g. CSS3, Geolocation, etc. etc.), and correct the marketing messages being shouted from various rooftops so we can better understand and reliably build HTML5 websites and web applications that use HTML5.

Jeff Croft argues just the opposite:

Sometimes we just need a word to rally behind. And put in job descriptions. And claim we “support” (another word that is mostly meaningless). It’s a language thing and a human psychology thing.

For the most part, I think what Jeff is saying is fine …assuming we’re talking about managers, marketers, and other people who aren’t making websites for a living. For the rest of us down in the trenches, I think it is important to understand what is in which spec. As Jeff later clarifies:

That “HTML5” means something different to marketers than it does to web developer is an annoyance, no doubt — but I don’t think it hinders us any real way, and I don’t know that we need to, as Tantek suggests, “vigilantly clarify” the matter.

Fair enough. If someone in middle management wants to use the term HTML5 where they previously used, say, “Web 2.0”, that’s fine. But here’s the problem…

A couple of weeks ago, I got a got phone call out of the blue from a local web developer. My mobile number is listed right here—anyone is free to call me whenever they want. He had a reasonable enquiry. He wanted to know if he could pop ‘round to the Clearleft office and buy a copy of my new book directly from me rather than ordering it online.

Alas no, I said. That’s my personal stash, not for resale.

But while he had me on the phone, he asked a couple of questions about what’s in the book. I started talking about semantics and forms. He asked Does it cover CSS?

No. Nope. Definitely not. The book is very specifically about HTML5, not CSS3.

And then he said But CSS3 is part of HTML5, isn’t it?

He’s not in management. He’s not in marketing. He builds websites. And the scary thing is, I think he’s probably fairly representative of many working web developers.

Don’t get me wrong: I honestly don’t care that much about whether something like geolocation is technically part of HTML5 or not: that’s a fairly trifling matter. But CSS3? C’mon! In what universe is it in any way acceptable that a web developer wanting to learn about web fonts begins by Googling for HTML5?

Ok... that's enough. This comes from Adactio, the site of UK author and web developer . As happens so often when I'm browsing Adactio, I'm not sure of the particulars, but I recognize the pattern. Imprecision in terminology (or, if you will, not insisting on a "narrow usage") facilitates broad connections and conversations. But, at the same time, it weakens our understanding of, and ability to do, important learning / teaching work at hand.

Define your terms.

Just today a colleague and I came to loggerheads (but not fisticuffs) about whether or not saying literacy work was part of the volunteer sector implied that it is done, or should be done, or naturally and normally gets done, by volunteers. She thinks "volunteer sector" references work and institutions managed by volunteers. I'm inclined to think there's a darker, ideological message in that phrase - namely that social-helping work is to be done by the idle rich (or, perhaps, their wives).

But, of course, you know my real beef is with those nine vicious little words - literacy is about more than just reading and writing - which leads, in my opinion, to things like International Literacy Day for Yuppies, which we Canadians are apparently celebrating this year. From multiple sites:

Try out some of these activities to celebrate International Literacy Day – and continue to practice literacy every day!

  1. Update your resume
  2. Join a professional network site, like LinkedIN
  3. Search sites like Workpolois or Monster for possible jobs
  4. Ask a colleague to teach you something new
  5. Teach a colleague something new
  6. Take a professional development course
  7. Read a book or do a crossword puzzle on your lunch break
  8. Read a professional journal or sign up for a subscription
  9. Learn to use a machine or software program at work
  10. Write an email to a former co-worker you’ve lost touch with
In what universe is it in any way acceptable? asks Mr. Keith. Well, in the UK and Canada, it seems.

The names of simple ideas are not capable of any definition; the names of all complex ideas are. It has not, that I know, been yet observed by anybody what words are, and what are not, capable of being defined; the want whereof is (as I am apt to think) not seldom the occasion of great wrangling and obscurity in men's discourses....
Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1689

Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another....
Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique 1764. (Translated, of course.)


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