From the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the Star Tribune: “As vast swaths of the Western United States recuperated from the second massive power failure in six weeks, federal energy officials called an emergency meeting for today to address whether the region’s energy grid has been overwhelmed by burgeoning demand.”
If we replaced “power” and “energy” with “Internet”, the Infobahn doomsayers would be going to town. “I told you so,” they would say. Those of us who had predicted the Internet’s continued survival would mill around shame-faced, looking for a place to hide.
As it happens, though, this was a power outage, and while the experts acknowledge a problem, nobody is predicting the collapse of the national power grid. When AT&T’s long distance service failed the east coast a few years back it caused some red faces but nobody used the term “collapse” then, either.
I don’t believe the Internet will collapse, as I’ve said before. I expect local outages, service slowdowns, and other annoyances. The dynamics of supply and demand will, in my naÃ¯ve world-view, prevent catastrophic overload. (Not that I have a useful opinion on the subject – I know far too little about it.)
Regardless of what really happens, at year’s end we’ll see a spate of articles debating whether the Internet collapsed this year or not. The Cassandra contingent, having predicted collapse, will point to a long string of local service failures, lost e-mail messages, brownouts and other events to buttress its point of view.
The Panglossians, in their best of all possible worlds, will explain that these events were local outages not catastrophic collapses; that e-mail failures usually happen between the company firewall and e-mail server, and that lots of things suffer temporary outages without their being called collapses.
Eventually everyone will throw up their hands and chalk it up to semantics.
And that’s just not good enough.
Not because this subject matters the tiniest little bit. Except for figuring out who gets to gloat, deciding who was right and who was wrong has zero importance. No, it’s using “semantics” as a rhetorical escape hatch that bothers me. We all do it. That doesn’t make it a good alternative to resolving problems. In fact, it’s no better than “agreeing to disagree.”
How many times have you tried to wrestle a subject to the ground in a group setting, only to have some helpful soul say, “We’re just arguing semantics now, so why don’t we move on.” End of discussion, end of subject, matter closed.
Except it’s not closed. Semantics is the study of meaning, and when we argue semantics, we’re revealing differences in what we mean. Arguing about the “right” usage of a word may not be a productive use of time. Discovering that different members of a group have meant very different things when using the same words, though, reveals both lack of consensus and a communications breakdown. Closing discussion at this point ensures that nobody understands what anyone else means.
Making sure everyone understands what decision ended up getting made is important. So when you have an argument over semantics you should highlight it, decide on a common definition, and resolve the issue in question based on the newly agreed-to meaning.
And then you need to determine whether there’s a second issue that needs probing based on the alternative definition to whatever term or phrase was at the heart of a dispute.
Regardless, if you find yourself falling back on “it’s just semantics” very often, you ought to take a hard look at your decision process. Somewhere, you’ve missed a step.
On an entirely different subject, for those of you who felt I took cheap shot at Bob Dole a few weeks ago in my column on encouraging risk … I feel your pain.