≡ Menu

When language goes on holiday

This apt phrase is from Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 38, “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”. One cannot be sloppy in language without at the same time being sloppy in thought.

Of course, this thought is not new. In Analects 13:3, Confucius is given a hypothetical question by a disciple: “If the ruler of Wei put the administration of his state in your hands, what would you do first?”. Confucius replied, “There must be a Rectification of Names,” explaining:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

In that spirit, let us talk of “choice”, a word loaded with meaning. Choice is good, right? Who would voluntarily give up their god-given right to choose for himself? Reducing choice is immoral. A central role of government is to ensure that we can choose freely. For a market to thrive it must be free of every regulation that reduces our ability to choose. These are all self-evident truths.

Or are they?

Let me set you a problem. I place before you a glass of water. Whether it is half full or half empty I leave to your imagination. What use is this glass of water to you? Certainly you can drink it. Or you could sell it to someone else. Or you could create a derivative option to buy the water, and sell this option to someone else. Or you could pledge the water as collateral for some other purchase. You have several options, several choices. But suppose you are thirsty. Then what do you do with this nice, cold glass of water? If you drink it, then you can no longer sell it, sell options on it, or pledge it. Drinking the water eliminates choice. So better not to drink it. Just let it sit there, on the table. But still you get thirstier and thirstier.

What a cruel dilemma I’ve given you! You cannot drink without reducing your future options, without eliminating choice. Of course, the water slowing gets warmer and evaporates. Even not choosing is itself a choice.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
— Omar Khayyam

How are we to make sense of this paradox? The fact is that every decision, ever choice you make, commits you and eliminates some other choices. We choose because without choosing we cannot claim the value in a single path among alternatives. If you want to quench your thirst then you must drink the water. It is that simple.

So I’ve found it amusing to see how Microsoft and their supporters constantly attack open source and open standards on the grounds that they reduce choice. For example, Microsoft’s lobbying arm, with the Orwellian doublespeak name “The Freedom to Innovate Network” lists this among its policy talking points:

[G]overnments should not freeze innovation by mandating use of specific technology standards

This talking point is picked up and repeated. Open Malaysia picks on a local news article which quoted a Microsoft director speaking on Malaysia’s move toward favoring Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in government procurements:

My opinion is that it [the policy] limits choice as the country has a software procurement preference policy

The Initiative For Software Choice is the latest face on the hundred-headed hydra spreading FUD around the world. However they have recently had the embarrassment of seeing an example of their handiwork leaked to the press which is worth a read in full.

This in itself is neither new nor news, but it just recently occurred to me that this is all just an abuse of language, with no substance behind it. When one adopts a technology standard one does it with some desired outcome in mind. One chooses this path in order to receive that benefit. Adopting a standard is like drinking a glass of water. You doing it because you are thirsty.

A recent Danish report (the “Rambøll Report”) looked at the significant cost savings of moving the Danish government to OpenOffice/ODF compared to using MS Office with OOXML. Is it wrong to choose a less expensive alternative? Or is it better not to choose at all, and forgo the cost savings?

I think we need to all ask ourselves what we thirst for. Are you suffering from vendor lock-in? Are your documents tied to a single platform and vendor? Are you overpaying for software of which you use only a fraction of the functionality? Are you unable to move to a more robust desktop platform because your application vendor has tied its applications to a single platform? If you are thirsty, I have one word of advice: “Drink”.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • damian 2006/10/31, 4:36 am

    Rob your comment “Adopting a standard is like drinking a glass of water. You doing it because you are thirsty.” is genus

  • The Mandarin 2006/12/31, 11:20 am

    The Duke of Wei didn’t ask Confucius the question. His disciple Zilu was asking him a hypothetical question about what he would tell the Duke of Wei IF he was asked: QUOTE Zilu said: “If the ruler of Wei put the administration of his state in your hands, what would you do first?” Confucius said: “If something had to be first, I would say rectification of terms.” Zilu said: “That’s it? What a strange approach to things! Why start with rectification of terms?” Confucius said: “Yu, how unsophisticated you are. A gentleman should be careful when talking about things of which he is ignorant. When terms for things are not correct, then what is said will not make sense; when what is said does not make sense, then our undertakings must end in failure.”
    END QUOTE (My Translation)

  • Rob 2006/12/31, 5:17 pm

    Thanks. I’ve updated the Confucius reference.

Leave a Comment