September 19, 2006
Speaking My LanguageA very curious thing to consider is the historical and continuing evolution of language and culture. Barely 50 years ago, there were big linguistic and cultural differences between nations. I like to think in terms of the theory of panspermia: the theoretical mechanism by which life - in the form of microbes - may spread from planet to planet. Two key variables in this are the mass of the microbe and the pull of gravity that might prevent it from escaping. The greater these two values are, the more energy is required for a microbe to be launched into space. The more energey is required, the less probability that it will happen - and the less cross-pollination of worlds would occur.
And so it was back in 1492 that getting a word like "Espagne" or an idea like "Christianity" to leave the gravitational pull of Europe and travel all the way to the New World took enormous amounts of energy. Now we can just pick up the phone or turn on our TV, and very complex ideas can be transmitted instantaneously around the globe at almost no cost. Christoper Columbus might have been very surprised to arrive in America and find natives who spoke Spanish and carried bibles with them. Today we wouldn't bat an eyelid to find natives in distant lands speaking American English, watching reruns of Friends and reading about Tom Cruise's latest faux pas in their local edition of Heat magazine.
The energy required for ideas to break free forms a barrier - a potential well from which the idea must escape (like the gravity well that the microbe has to climb out of to leave orbit) - and the deeper the well, the greater the energy required to escape it. In cultural terms, the deeper the well, the harder it is to for "stuff" ( people, produce, ideas) to cross over the barrier. Populations who live at the bottom of very deep potential wells will tend to be far more isolated, because the probability of crossing over is so much less.
The extent to which a group of people have a unique language and culture is a reasonable indication of how isolated they've been. I can't help but think of little Nell in the film of the same name. Jodie Foster plays a character who has lived in the remote backwoods of North Carolina and has never known anyone except her mother and twin sister. She speaks a language that only she and her sister knew, and after her family dies, she is left all alone and unable to communicate until a psychologist takes her under her wing.
And occasionally I come across organisations who are a bit like Nell. They seem to speak a language entirely unique to themselves. This can be a sign of years of intellectual isolation, as if developments in the world outside have completely passed them by. Like Nell, these clients need to go through a slow and painful process of acclimatisation and rehabilitation to allow them to function in the wider software development community.
The potential wells that these organisations sit at the bottom of are built up by the barriers they put up to communication beyond their boundaries. For example, if they have a policy on intellectual property that makes it hard to have a free, open and honest conversation with someone outside the organisation - that's a barrier. If they prefer their engineers to be at their desks coding, rather than attending conferences, that's another barrier. Put up enough barriers, and communication becomes too much like hard work. And when something is too much like hard work, people tend not to bother. There are all sorts of barriers, of course. And culture and language can form barriers that prevent their own propogation. If two groups of people are too far apart then there's a good chance they'll simply avoid interacting altogether. So organisations who are little Nells are caught in a trap where it takes so much effort to open a dialogue that other organisations will be put off even trying. This compounds the isolation, and a vicious circle can be formed where greater isolation makes the isolation greater.
Where's Liam Neeson when you need him?
Posted 15 years, 6 months ago on September 19, 2006