Forget the IoT, AI is the NBT

As a communicator – if that’s what, like me, you are – I think there is an implied duty to keep it simple, concise, accurate and to-the-point. It is part of our job to ensure that the message is understood, and central to that is using the right words and the right terminology. And being rigorous about others doing so – keeping your spokespeople in check – and absolutely not pandering to the latest buzzwords and phrases unless they are applicable and relevant.

One of the areas with a propensity for chucking up such terms is, of course, the tech sector.  It was only four years ago that I first encountered the Internet of Things. The IoT, for the sake of clarity and a frame of reference, was the idea of machines connected by the internet, exchanging data and information, thereby better enabling the lives of the humans interacting with those machines.

It was science fiction becoming science fact – mooted examples included fridges that would email their owners to advise them that they were low on Chardonnay, cars that would ‘talk’ to parking spaces to ascertain which were empty and transport hubs that would manage passenger flows by anticipating staffing and infrastructure requirements on a ‘just in time’ basis.

The IoT was the Next Big Thing, and – briefly – everyone (seemingly) had some skin in the IoT game and an industry grew up around it. I myself spoke at an event in Frankfurt entitled ‘Monetising the Internet of Things’ (in front of an audience of 17 people, I’ll admit).

It’s still going on – I recently read a lovely piece of corporate pluggery on the Forbes ‘news’ site (here it is) which explains how Heineken, brewers of the global parish, are busy using big data, the IoT and AI to enhance their customer experience. (And sell more beer. Obviously.)

All very, very consumer-focused, very hi-tech, undoubtedly extremely experience-enhancing – and, the real point, highly reputation-building and positioning of Heineken in the very vanguard of new thing adoption.

But IoT or AI? I’m no tech whizz, but – as a communicator, wishing to ensure things are factual, easy-to-understand and reputation enhancing – I’d have to question it. Looks mostly like clever use of existing technologies bundled together to give the appearance of a whole thing.

Doesn’t mean the IoT doesn’t exist, mind. There are smart roads. You can turn your heating on via your smartphone. But mostly, the IoT has turned out to be gathering data, from ever-more numerous sources and using it in decision-making. Brilliant, but not, really – to my mind – machines talking to each other over the internet.

Which brings us to the latest tech buzzterm, AI. Apparently, 70% of enterprises expect to implement AI over the next twelve months (again, I’m afraid, via Forbes).

It’s an interesting statistic, given the fact that Artificial Intelligence doesn’t actually exist yet. It is the IoT experience all over again – AI is the new shiny object, which everyone covets (partly through severe FOMO), but without really understanding the reality of it.

Like ‘blockchain’, AI is becoming a buzzphrase, shoehorned into presentations and strategies, simply to demonstrate that the organisation is up-to-speed with the latest, down with the technopreneurs and (most definitely) not missing a trick. Doesn’t seem to be important whether the buzz term du jour is being used correctly or not.

Unfortunately, the very use of the term ‘AI’ gives the lie to anything containing it. What we are dealing with today is, as I understand it, augmented machine learning, not intelligence – your bots, which, it seems, and in advanced cases, can access previous decision trees to improve future decision making.

I’m a firm believer that AI will become part of our lives, and very much sooner rather than later. I’m also a firm believer in the Internet of Things and am confident that real M2M communication will also be a part of our day-to-day. I rather suspect that the development of the former will facilitate the latter.

Until, however, it does happen, we – the guardians of the message, the conscience of the organisation – need to ensure that we’re not just jumping on a poorly-understood bandwagon, for short-term (and rather flimsy and see-through) reputational gain.

Moving to 280 – Removing a Valuable Discipline?

So Twitter is trialling 280 character tweets.

According to Biz Stone, Twitter’s founder, “science and study showed us phonetic languages want and need ~280. Not everyone will use this amount”. This could be true, but because the science and study can’t be explained in 140 characters (or 280, for that matter) it feels a bit vague. (It would interesting to see the science and study though – they could tweet a link to it.)

Give people the extra characters and mostly they will use them, because it’s easier and because they can. The beauty of Twitter was in the 140 character limit – it is a real skill to be able to condense your meaning into that amount, and still have it understood as you intended. It is even more skilful to to do it with humour and personality. Brevity, as the great man said, is the soul of wit.

The discipline that Twitter imposed was a great pointer for all good communication. Plain language, short, to the point and, if at all possible, personal. Simplify your messages so they are brief and instantly comprehensible. Take time (but not too much) to eliminate ambiguity.

Twitter’s character limit forced the identification of superfluous words – vital if you’re writing a media release, an all-staff communication, a script, a position statement, a key message document, the list goes on – and encouraged creative use of vocabulary (another key skill for the communicator).

In fact, when approached with a brief by a client or an internal customer, a good starting point would be to distil the essence of the communication into an 140-character sentence (or sentences). Get that right and everything builds from there.

Twitter’s provision of extra characters encourages less thought, which, given the standard of some of the ‘thought’ on the medium already, is a bad thing.

In the wider world of communication generally, a similar lack of boundary and discipline leads to four-page media releases, eight-hundred-word staff emails, confused journalists, disengaged employees, words for words’ sake and the wanton use of adjectives like ‘fantastic’ and ‘fun’.

What’s In A Name?

Sometimes, I feel that all this was made up just for my benefit. My older readers will remember a movie called The Truman Show, in which manic comedian Jim Carrey discovers that his whole life is a reality TV show played out for the entertainment of the masses. It’s the little things that, eventually, give it away.

For me, it’s names. Striking and wonderful names which, somehow, give pause for thought. Quite clearly, it is a game being played by those who are running my personal show – seeing how just how far they can take it before I have to stand up and say ‘c’mon guys – really?’

It started quite innocuously. President Canaan Banana. Rugby player Austin Healy. Emma Dale. The news reporter, Julia Caesar. Recently, however, it’s become quite serious. Obviously, the directors of my show – confronted, I imagine, by collapsing ratings befitting a programme probably entitled ‘The Not Very Inspiring Life and Times of the Rather Humdrum Jeremy Probert’ – need to provoke me to some sort of reaction.

So they’ve thrown me into contact with Hubertus Funke, Elly Button and – I kid you not – Ting Ting Dong. (Never mind the spurned mistress of billionaire Samuel Tak Lee, who tried to blackmail him for £3m – take a bow, the entirely-appropriately-named Fuk Wu.) But it’s not just amazingly named people that are the cause of my disquiet.

Toward the end of 2013, The Wall Street Journal (I have to say, I think Big Brother could have done better with that one) published a list of companies entitled ‘The Billion-Dollar Start Up Club’. These are startup companies that are valued at $1bn plus by venture capital firms. Running down the list, we see included Jingdong, Zalando, Houzz, Jasper, Deem and – oh, yes – MongoDB.

Now, the so-called ‘Wall Street Journal’ (I’m on to your game, sonny) has a back-story for each of them – quite convincing as it turns out – but even then, there are the little clues, the in-jokes, the oh-so-arch references that give it away. Take Palantir. Valued at $9.3bn in the last quarter of 2013, its data mining software is used by ‘the CIA and the FBI to distil large amounts of information’.

Of course, everyone here will know that a Palantir is a creation of JRR Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. An artefact of great power, of Elvish creation, it was an early form of mobile communication device (although the largest of the Palantiri suffered from the same design flaw as the Motorola DynaTAC in 1973 – it was the size of a small room) combining some of the features of Cisco’s TelePresence. More germane to my argument, however, is that fact that when we see a Palantir in action – so to speak – in The Lord of The Rings, it’s being used by Sauron, the Dark Lord.

And, arguably, he’s using it to ‘distil large amounts of information’. Coincidence? I think not. (Yes, I realise that it is possible that the founders of Palantir decided to use the name for EXACTLY THE REASONS I HAVE OUTLINED HERE. But they can’t have – because that would be the conclusive proof I’ve been looking for. Wouldn’t it?)

Another unmistakeable hole in the fabric of what I will laughingly call my ‘reality’ is, of course, the frankly silly numbers that are being attached to these startups. In the WSJ’s list, Snapchat’s there with a value of $2bn. (Twice the value of Mogujie, as it turns out. See? See what I mean?) Today, and following a judicious investment of $20m from the VCs, it’s got a valuation of $10bn. Not bad, Messrs Murphy and Spiegel, for a few months work on something that doesn’t actually generate any revenues (no surprises there, then).

Frankly, with all of this going on, you cannot expect me to believe I’m living in a sane and rational ‘real world’. I’ve been Jeremy Probert. Thank you for watching.

Word Rage

Here’s a thing that ticks all my boxes – in the same way that The Sound of Music has everything one wants in a film (Nazis, nuns and goats), this story has hippies (actually, an unbeatable combination of American and hippy), made-up words and food trends. I don’t know whether to squeal with delight or explode into incandescent rage and spontaneously combust. At least I know that, working (I use the word loosely) in close proximity to airlines, my ashes would be well taken care of.

So, for your delectation on a wintry Friday, here’s a story from The Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Brooklyn Foodies Supper In Silence’. Do the light clicktastic and have a look for yourselves. OK, OK, I know that you won’t – so many links unclick’d ‘pon, as the Bard might have said, o brave new communications medium that hath such pages in’t. So, as you persist in your churlish reticence and simple bloody-minded refusal to play along, I will tell you what the article says.

In brief, it seems that a restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (which I believe to be a suburb of the American capital, New Amsterdam), called Eat (got to love that ol’ US no-frills, does-what-it-says-on-the-tinness) recently hosted a pop-up dinner in which all 17 or so guests committed to a vow of silence during the meal. What I think is more surprising here is not that there was a silent rule for the meal, but rather that the guests found it difficult to succeed in the endeavour. There was a threat of plates being taken outside to finish meals in a ‘loudmouth’ fashion. Others went to the toilet to give themselves pep talks – out loud. It is not made plain whether smartphones and other devices were outlawed also – if not, I’m certain others kept their silence by concentrating furiously on Facebook.

Apparently, in the end, the silence became ‘good – the good kind of quiet’. On so many levels I find this beyond strange. The fact that one pop-up silent dinner makes a trend. The fact that the silent diners couldn’t hack it. The fact that silent dining is – in itself – considered so out of the ordinary that it’s newsworthy. The fact that hipsters are so unaccustomed to quiet that they’d never experienced comfortable quiet before. (Only in America, I’m afraid.) it’s not even as if it was the food that rendered the diners silent. No. They had to be ‘implored to ‘speak now, or forever hold your peace” in a rather unhealthy confusion of the spiritual and the corporeal.

How do you think this lot would have managed in Dans Le Noir? (Where you dine in the dark.)

Anyway, so far, so privileged American nonsense. Ridiculous hippies, with tales of ‘silent breakfasts (…) enjoyed at a monastery in the Indian Buddhist pilgrimage city of Bodh Gaya and stints in silence at meditative retreats, (and) hoping to rediscover that pastoral energy in a city-bound context’. ( Oi! Wall Street Journal! This is satire, isn’t it? We’re not actually taking these people seriously? Just checking.)

But then – oh, then. Why is it that our colonial cousins feel that it’s acceptable to select words. seemingly at random, and then forcibly bend them to their will, regardless of context or meaning? And, if they fail in this endeavour, to simply make something up, often without needing to do so, as there are (of course) a plethora of perfectly acceptable words that could be employed in most situations. I suspect it is because the United States and America are, clearly the homes of the brave and the lands of the free and if I can carry a high-powered automatic weapon in public, perfectly legally, wear dubious clothes at will and be umpteen stone overweight as a right, then I can most certainly obligate the American language to manglify itself around my need for expression without thought. I wish to engage mouth without having brain in gear.

Back to our silent dinner – one of the guests (Jessica Laser, a 27-year-old writer from Greenpoint, since you ask) (great name, Ms Laser, btw) who – just in case you missed it – is a writer, had this to say. “I tend to pride myself on my ability to articulate, so I’m eager to see what happens here.” Ms Laser is, by the way, a writer. She is also using the adjective as a verb – which at least shows some arms-length familiarity with the intended meaning – but is, of course, wrong. ‘To articulate’ does not mean ‘to speak’. ‘Articulate’ describes someone who can converse fluently, but it is not (Ms Laser) a doing word.

Thing is, I know where this came from. And it is insidious. A sort of creeping malaise. An American ill. I shall make up a word to describe it. In fact I already have done. Manglify. Only, were I a US citizen, that would not be enough. I would have to go a step further. Yes, gentle reader, I would have to go to ‘manglificate’. So, for example, the perfectly good verb ‘to oblige’ becomes ‘to obligate’ (‘he was obligated’), and – I shudder inside – the generally acceptable verb ‘to converse’ becomes ‘to conversate’ (‘we should conversate around this’). I suspect that the erroneous use of the word articulate was because of a confusion around conversate – and here I will simply say that when language is destroyed based on a misunderstanding over a word that doesn’t exist, all is pretty much lost.

Finally – because I know you’re almost bursting with the desire to know what our silent chums ate, at their inarticulate dinner – I shall tell you what the Quiet Ones aterated for their mute repast. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was simply too much trouble for Nicholas Nauman (Eat’s 28-year-old managing chef and events planner) to describe his cuisine as organic and locally-sourced, so he called it – or maybe it’s not him (horrible thought strikes), maybe this is everywhere in the colonies – ‘organic locavore fare’.

Herbivore. Carnivore. Locavore. I went on t’interweb. I typed in ‘loca’ and requested a translation. I got the answer I thought I might. It appears that a locavore would be one who mainly consumes Spanish madwomen.

Manglificent!

What’s Wrong With the English Language?

What is wrong with the English language (with its 1 million, nineteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-nine point six words – yes, point six – which I presume is explained using the same reasoning that allows for ‘dog’ being two words – noun and verb – where the point six of a word is one of those ones that irritating people – yes, that’s you, Mother – use to win at Scrabble. Words like ‘pfft’ and ‘xkp’. Which are not worthy of being words. Or, the thought strikes me, is it that there are two words which are one point three of a word each, which, for no sane reason, I can imagine as words like ‘sha’n’t’ which, with two apostrophes and, to my mind, although I’m not sure whether it’s accepted wisdom or not, two glottal stops, is definitely more than one word, although I’d stop short of saying it’s a word and a half)?

I mean, there has to be something wrong with it, or people wouldn’t insist on making words up to suit their own ends, or to fill a void which was probably perfectly fillable by an already extant word, but they were just to lazy to think about it for a moment or – heaven forfend – access t’wonder of t’modern age, t’internet and have a quick noodle for the right word, or simply to escape the dark lexicographical silence in their heads. Words like ‘volunteerism’, ‘bulletise’, ‘monetise’, ‘cremains’, ‘alphabetise’, ‘corporatastical’ and ‘stresscalation’. (OK, the last two are genuinely made up – not by me, I may add – and are free for you to use in whatever way you wish.) (I shall be using them in discussion with my CEO as soon as the opportunity arises.)

But still they persist, these makers of words, these egotistical improvers of that which (I would argue) does not need their improvement (as it is already growing at 14.7 words a day, proper words, like ‘Web 2.0’ – which was word number one million – yes, alright, I know it’s not a proper word *sigh*) and the latest obscenity to grab my attention as it appears to be spreading like sick outside a Walkabout on a Saturday night is ‘obligate’.

No, no and thrice no. It’s oblige. No-one is obligated to do nothing, never. One may, however, end up being obliged to do something. Anyway, I got all quite cross about this and approached t’internet (with the requisite caution) and pushed a few searchy buttons and found this – old, but interesting – discussion on painintheenglish.com. D’you know, it stopped me for a moment. Because there’s an argument that ‘obligated’ (I suffered when I typed that, I should point out) is a legal term, differentiated from obliged, with a far stronger meaning.

But I soon recovered. Even if it is (and I’ve no proof that it actually IS, having not consulted my legal advisor, Habeas Corpus of Corpus, Facit and Fides) there is no excuse for using it outside of the legal arena. I do not refer to myself as the party of the first part (hardly ever, anyway), far preferring me, you or him, nor do I go around making agreements in principle and no more do I talk about the arbitrariness of something or other.

It’s either arbitrary, or it’s not. And one should be obliged to remember that.

Further Adventures In Language

Hello. You still here? Amazing.

Anyway, many, many moons ago when the world was young and fresh and full of surprises – for me, anyway – I discovered American English. Or, rather, I was dunked in it, like a reluctant digestive into a large cup of cold sick, immersed by virtue of where I worked. I discovered it was at times lazy (aluminium, chaps, aluminium), misunderstood and misused (no, you will not be with me momentarily, neither have you misunderestimated my capacity for rage and revenge) and sometimes simply made up on the spot. I know that powerpoint is a (fairly) new thing, but we could to do better than ‘bulletize’ when trying to convey the act of translating an idea or theme into or on to a powerpoint slide. After all, as a valued commentator pointed out to me, bulletise is what US infantry do to the Taliban. (Is that a little risque?)

So, it’s been a while, and – having escaped the clutches of the Americans – the horror of daily acquaintaince with what can only be described as the English Language Chainsaw Massacre was starting to fade. The dreams had almost stopped, I’d been weaned off the sedatives and my current boss’ inadvertent use of the not-word ‘foundationed’ in a live media interview resulted in little more than goosepimples and a slight dimming of my peripheral vision.

It was all getting better. Until today. Now, before I go and unveil this latest verbal atrocity which – yes – comes wrapped in the Stars ‘n’ Stripes with a billet doux from Uncle Sam – may I say that there is something even more insidious at work here. Which is that people I would consider perfectly sane, normal people – the sort of people that one might almost have a drink with (if they were paying) – seem to be perpetuating this nonsense.

You all know the rules. You see a twisted or maimed word, phrase or construct and you put it out of its misery. You do not pass it on. You do not ‘like’ it. (Is is me or is the word ‘like’ too close to ‘lick’ for comfort? It simply backs up my deep-seated belief that the vast majority of people who are ‘liking’ things on the old social media are also the sort of people you find licking shop windows and moaning.) Anyway, this latest linguistic travesty came to my attention because people have been passing it on. Had they not, everything would be alright.

And here it is. I have removed the company name to spare its blushes. And to avoid the blog coming up in searches.

“Throughout November, employees in 30 offices spanning 23 countries will come together to support a variety of projects to help those in need and improve our local communities through volunteerism.”

Volunteerism. What – in the name of all that’s holy – is wrong with the perfectly acceptable word ‘volunteering’? I mean, it’s not like there was a gap in the dictionary where they word they wanted to use wasn’t, is it? There was a word, for God’s sake – a good one, one that’s been used before to great effect – but no, far better to make one up. And while you’re at it, why not make one up that sounds like a personality disorder? Excellent. Well done, you.

I’m just going to sit here quietly until the darkness goes away.

Apostrophic Errors

Morning all – this is a post for me, so apologies in advance – and it’s with regard to one of my pet hates (and, I am aware, a pet hate of many of yours, dear internet-dwelling word herders) – the misplaced apostrophe.

I am not going into this here, as you’ll know what I’m talking about and if you don’t, then it’s likely that you make apostrophic errors and, if I were you, I’d keep your head down, do da clickety onna linky and NEVER MAKE THESE MISTAKES AGAIN.

(In actual fact, I like this whole blog – Boggleton Drive – and so should you, dearest Blog Trotters. This stuff is important.)

(Even if the apostrophe post has a split infinitive in it. Mind, I was told recently that split infinitives don’t matter any more, so who am I etc etc etc.)