We are prone to making much ado about nothing. We create controversies where none exist. We are especially given to inventing distinctions without a difference.
I observe it in my own field: Where there’s a cottage industry to be born out of some turn of phrase, a little thing we could grow into a bigger thing, that’s where semantics become our friends. Semantics enhance the illusion that we’re articulating something novel and noteworthy. But are we really?
Nine times out of ten, after we peel away the wrapper and scratch our chins and consider, we conclude with The Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or if that’s too arcane, “I’ve seen this movie before.”
Oh, the mountains we tease out of mole hills. Why do we do it?
Sometimes we’re carving out a niche. We do it for market differentiation, to “own” a new word in the busy bazaar of our industry. We want to create something we can slap a trademark symbol upon.
I said “nine times out of ten.” I don’t know the real proportions, but it sure feels that way. Nevertheless, that leaves the one thing.
There are the rarer occasions when someone has created a new combination of old things, rather than another me-too offering. They’ve improved upon the expression of something that went before. They’ve broken fresh ground.
Shall we give it a new word? Sure.
But unless we’ve made a new and worthwhile thing, let’s take care not to abuse meaning. Let’s think twice before stealing the attention of other people.
I read a post this morning in which an industry colleague, a truly good thinker, was sorting out the purported difference between two pieces of jargon we use in our field. These two terms create noise and confusion. Dissonance rather than music, if you will. I believe this is what caused her to remark about them. She felt the need to offer clarity where it was missing.
Although she didn’t expressly say it, I believe she was implying that we are fussing about things that aren’t so different. She had to enhance the distinction for us. I might have heard a subtextual sigh in her voice.
Perhaps I was projecting. I do my own sighing when I see what passes for new — the cutting-edge of learning and design and technology. As a general rule, I remove myself from this semantic jungle, I sidestep the flea markets of flimflam.
Stephen King said in his book ON WRITING, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” He goes on to point up Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style as an example of a concise volume that is not filled with bullshit.
This principle carries over to every industry. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves trading exclusively in retread. It can get noisy out there. We need to sift the wheat from the chaff.
It’s my opinion that we should apply a fine-mesh filter to “the new” while keeping our eye on the ball of fundamentals. We rarely master fundamentals before we’re off chasing phantoms — promises of something higher or better or more impressive. It’s time and cost-intensive. At the enterprise level, it carries million-dollar price tags. Yet, the essence of what we need to know and practice we learned during our first tennis lesson: “Keep your eye on the ball.”
Most things distill to the fundamental and venerable. Principles of Design, for example, which is why I cast a jaundiced eye on some of the au courant jargon.
We are standing on the shoulders of giants. It follows that we ought to spend most of our time looking backward to things that were articulated before we were here. They were usually expressed better, simpler, clearer. They have longer track records. Ancient, even — shaken out at the agora, long ago. They were different once. They remain distinct.
ANTHONY ROTOLO is a creative fellow who engages in the spaces of publishing and podcasting and pedagogy.