On Building Intentional Culture, With Words

Our languages and the words they contain help define us.

You don't have to believe me. You can go and convince yourself first. Here's an excerpt:

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world...

  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn't remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: "The vase broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase."

So where are you going with this, Randall?...

I blogged about my strong distaste for the term "user" a few days back, and it generated a lively discussion (see the comments). It also triggered some further thinking and I have now realized that my initial post was just the tip of a large iceberg. Please allow me to describe what lurks beneath the water line.

We're building something new with Ubuntu. We're building a participatory culture adjacent to a place (the computer industry) that has been the antithesis of participatory. Think parched desert: a place where inclusiveness is forbidden. If that industry were to include all humans, it would break their business model. You see, the old model requires that more than 90% of humans be "obedient subjects" and "consumers". I call this the "Dark Ages of Computing".

Remember Mark's question and answer session this week at the Ubuntu Online Summit (UOS)? He opened with and emphasized these points:

  • We are a project for human beings, and that's a strong part of our ethos.
  • Ubuntu benefits our communities.
  • People care about helping humanity get over its challenges and griefs.

That's exactly what I admire about Ubuntu, and about Mark.

Yet, as we try to build this new world some of us are bringing elements of a language that forbids, or at least inhibits the realization of a dream. Words leak in.

So you might be asking, "What's to be done?" Here is my proposal:

The above diagram is meant to represent a flow (or transition) from the old to the new. See that block in the middle? That's a wall, a firewall to be precise. Imagine the language (words) from the "Dark Ages of Computing" (the cloud on the left) trying to get to the world we are trying to build, with Ubuntu (the cloud on the right). Think of the wall as the thing that keeps the language of the past firmly in the past. Words that at best are no longer useful, and at worst no longer helpful are blocked by default. Think of that wall as one that can help you select words that help build Ubuntu.

So, what words are part of the language of the past? here is my initial list:

  • user
  • consumer
  • permission
  • unapproved
  • linux (in certain contexts)

(Dont worry, I have many, many more... I'll share them soon. I may even pick on a few of them.)

As you talk about or write about Ubuntu, I hope that you will always remember my drawing. Are the words that you are using today helping or hurting the world that Ubuntu is trying to build?

Did you come from the cloud on the left? Don't feel bad. Many of us did.

But please, for the love of humanity, it's time to leave that world and those words behind. We are not there any more. Let's let words from the dark ages remain there.

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