I think it's a ploy to keep Merriam-Webster in business

February 9, 2008

Ethan Eismann has an interesting rumination about the limitations of language when it comes to new technology. More specifically, he’s not a fan of the term “RIA.” (Ethan prefers the term “RIE” for “Rich Interactive Experience.”) Quite honestly, neither am I. I lump “RIA” in the same category of ridiculously contrived “marketing speak” as “Web 2.0,” “next-generation” and “innovative paradigms.” In a nutshell: terms without any substance — Twinkies of the English language.

Still — ever the hypocrite am I — I delivered an entire mini-lecture just the other day during my class at the Art Institute on the architecture of RIAs! The term is so pervasive that I feel like I sometimes have to use it in order for people to understand what the heck I am talking about.

But I probably shouldn’t feel this way.

The problem with language is that it is inherently limiting. As soon as you put a label — a word — on something you must limit it. You must box it in and try to make it conform to the definitions and properties prescribed by the symbol you have given it. But the thing itself is not the word. It is not the symbol. And this is a real problem, especially when trying to communicate the potentiality of things — the future of things that do not yet exist. Surely, when you broaden the definition of the word and you broaden the potentiality, but usually at the sake of clarity. A word like “experience” (as opposed to “application”) is so broad as to contain almost limitless potential, but what it gains in expansiveness it loses in descriptiveness.

Marketing gurus create new terminology like “RIA” and “Web 2.0” in order to force people to engage in new conversations without them dragging along their baggage of ingrained prejudices about what something is or is not. They also do it — I am convinced — to make themselves seem smart. But we should not have to keep inventing new words in order to have these new conversations. And we should not keep inventing new words just to boost our own egos. My grandparents do not know what an RIA is, nor do they care. They use their iMac to open websites on the Internet, and occasionally they use desktop software. Why can’t they call something like Buzzword software? That’s what it is, isn’t it? Why can’t a Flash application, one that is loaded in the browser or on the desktop, one that provides a truly amazing experience, simply be called “software?” Great, amazing, usable, interactive software.

Enough with the new words already.