Thin technical terminology


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

Short one today on a weird aesthetic preference I have. It’s not particularly important but I’m curious whether anybody else has this, or whether it even makes sense to other people.

This relates back to the two types of symbol I was talking about a few posts back in Roses and traffic lights. Symbols as centres of clusters of rich associative meaning (‘rose symbolism in poetry’), vs symbols that are deliberately kept free of secondary associations so that they can stand for one ambiguous technical meaning (‘red traffic light means stop’).

Anyway the thing I really viscerally dislike is when I’m trying to learn a new technical topic, and a word that has a rich set of associations in everyday life is suddenly being repurposed for the ‘traffic light’ type of thin technical meaning. It’s just… bleurgh… and slows me down when learning certain things.

I’ll give an example. One place I’ve noticed this strongly is reading about cryptography and networking protocols. The technical vocabulary of ‘keys’ and ‘certificates’ and ‘sockets’ takes very ordinary words that have vivid sensory associations, and abstracts out one very specific core property. A cryptographic key isn’t metallic or shiny or toothed like a ‘proper’ key, but it does have the core property of having to be exactly correct, or it won’t open the thing you want to get at. I agree that this is the abstract heart of being a key, but somehow the word is still unpleasant without its cloud of visual and tactile connotations.

(There’s a connection to the Bell Jar stuff I quoted in the cognitive decoupling elite post – it’s similar to Esther’s dislike of the physics class.)

I know that if I stuck with the topic it would become better again. I’d start developing associations between the technical words, and then they’d start to have this rich meaning again. If I do get to this other side then technical topics suddenly become REALLY INTERESTING, and I can get obsessive. But I have to put in a lot of activation energy to get over this initial phase, and a lot of the time I just can’t be bothered.

I have the feeling that some people do have the ability to rapidly get interested in stuff just based on thin meanings, like mathematical definitions or rules for puzzles… but I don’t really know. Maybe they are just quicker at converting to thick meaning?

6 thoughts on “Thin technical terminology

  1. Bob Peterson June 12, 2020 / 10:09 am

    One traffic light example that I think is pretty bad is from SolidWorks (which is 3D engineering design software, for the unfamiliar). Sometimes when you modify a parameter like the dimension of some object, you need to “rebuild” the entire assembly to propagate the changes that your modification implies in other objects that are geometrically related.

    SolidWorks indicates that your assembly needs to be rebuild by displaying an icon of a traffic light, with red and green lights. If you don’t need to rebuild, the icon is absent. So, it’s not the red/green light serving as a stop/go signal, but the presence of the both-red-and-green traffic light as a whole that is the signal.

    I guess for this type of expensive, enterprise software it’s pretty common to have such ridiculous symbology and terminology, and grokking it is a marketable skill in and of itself (beyond whatever proficiency in the nominal task the software facilitates). In this context, the motivation to get through the learning stage is totally extrinsic, since it can be so aggravating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lucy Keer June 12, 2020 / 12:18 pm

      Oh yeah that is some pretty bad symbology. But yes, anything you’re using professionally all day can get away with it because you’re going to be following that workflow over and over again until the symbols become completely transparent.

      I love symbology that’s better than I expect. E.g. in Inkscape I can press #, which looks like a grid, and get a grid. Very satisfying!


  2. cyborg_nomade June 12, 2020 / 10:06 pm

    I have this when reading philosophy, but then I just associate the rich meaning to the technical word (heck, that’s what a metaphor is supposed to do) and live on. It usually works wonders, because technical vocabulary is often *meant* to draw this broader meaning onto the specific one. Thinking of a cryptographic key as a general key gives you the right mental frame to understand the rest according to this metaphor.


  3. andersshh June 13, 2020 / 2:58 am

    Have you ever learned a foreign language and what was that like for you?

    I’ve also been learning alphabets like cyrillic and hebrew (and I’m currently working on the arabic alphabet). It is interesting because the correspondence between letter and sound feels entirely arbitrary and nonsensical but when I’ve completed learning it it feels self evident.

    I know I’m only talking about adding meanings to things, but I’m hoping we can separate the phenomenon of removing meanings from things from the phenomenon of adding meanings to things and explore them separately.


    • Lucy Keer June 20, 2020 / 11:18 am

      No, I’ve never learned a language, beyond a small amount of school German, so can’t help much here.

      I have had that thing where a correspondence goes from arbitrary to obvious as I learn more though. Can’t think of any good examples atm, my brain is not working very well.


    • Lucy Keer October 11, 2020 / 1:59 pm

      OK I have an example, months later… I’ve been learning flags of countries on and off recently, after discovering in a quiz that I was terrible at recognising them, and I’m having this experience a lot at the moment where lots of flags are popping into meaningfulness. So I’m getting this ‘ding’ of recognition where it suddenly just *means* Lithuania or Bangladesh or w/e – the transition seems quite sudden.

      Also flags in general have become really salient for me. Like the little emoji ones in people’s twitter bios, or the ones in my blog analytics… they really pop out for me as something to pay attention to.


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