As writers, we feel precision is a good thing. Say what you mean! Pick exactly the right word! Don’t be vague!
But precision can be dangerous.
I was at a tech presentation recently. Someone in the audience asked the expert his opinion on a particular new technology. The questioner didn’t know much about it, so he wondered what the expert thought of it.
“What do you want to know about it?” said the expert. “Performance? Flexibility? Useability? Compatibility?”
What the questioner tried to explain, and what the expert never quite understood, is that he didn’t have a specific question about it. What he had was a huge gap in his knowledge about this new technology, which he quite reasonably hoped the expert could fill. But “tell me about this” is vague, and the expert demanded precision. And so their communication died.
Or maybe I’m talking to someone who wants to send me a file, and they ask if they can “download” it to me. Now, download means to pull a file from elsewhere to your own computer, so sending a file out is technically not downloading. Thus the precise answer to his question is very simple: no, you can’t download it to me. But obviously, the precise answer is not the correct answer. The correct answer is to disregard precision, guess the real meaning, and say “Yes, you can send it to me.”
Both my examples have been about computers, and that’s no coincidence. Computers are exquisitely precise, but they don’t do well with vagueness (although they’re getting better rapidly). Vagueness is largely a human virtue: the ability to think about something in a meaningful way, without tying it down to specific details.
But people who are good with computers often think like computers: good at precision, not so good at vagueness. They may be great at handling known unknowns, where the problem is well-defined, but they’re not so good at unknown unknowns, where the problem is that we don’t know what our problems are.
Naturally, there are plenty of people – in IT and elsewhere – who can walk in both worlds, using precision or vagueness appropriately as the situation demands. Because balance, of course, is the key. Too much vagueness is just as bad as too much precision. The great astronomer Carl Sagan was a master of this: his mind was precise enough to get a PhD in astrophysics, but flexible enough to explain the stars to the average person on TV.
Actually, Carl Sagan just rocked in general. If you haven’t seen Contact, check it out sometime.
Anyway. Yes. Precision, vagueness. (Crap, how do I end this? I don’t have a conclusion.)
Uh, yay for communicating!
oh man that was lame
STOP READING IT’S OVER