Thursday, 9 July 2015

The lost poets of utility

In pre-literate Greece, the hidden purpose of poetry was to teach by entertaining; if it failed to entertain, it could not teach.

Evidence for this, Havelock argues, comes from later opinions. Aristophanes in Frogs called the master poets of old 'the poets of utility'.
From John Man's uneven but thought-provoking history of the alphabet, Alpha Beta .

The ways in which people can spread information have multiplied since the days of the Homeric bards. Instead of a single medium, the human voice, people can now use paper, printing, recording, telephony, broadcasting and the the Internet to spread information from one mind to many. Thanks to standing on the shoulders of giants, we live in a golden age of communication.

Or we should do. There's a problem. Not with the vast proliferation of media, but with the message. If the aim of communication is to spread useful knowledge, you'll succeed best if your communication is clear, vivid and memorable. Or, to use John Man's word, entertaining. In other words, almost entirely unlike this:
Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers' ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak. It might even seem to some innocent souls as though all you need to do to acquire a high-level job is to learn its stultifying jargon. Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations.
The key phrase here is 'power relations' - being impenetrably dull is only a bug if you're genuinely trying to communicate with other people as equals. If you're trying to keep useful knowledge and power from the designated hoi polloi, it's a feature (see The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the pronouncements of the various Eurocrats and IMF wonks presiding over the Eurozone disaster, the house styles of most big, hierarchical organisations and so on ... and on and on and on).

The irony is that most people see a concern for style, clarity and searching for the memorable, even poetic phrase as an arty-farty, airy-fairy elite concern, whilst accepting dull, prosaic management-ese as the default mode of communication for the serious, practical, utilitarian business of real life.

As far as I can see, management-ese is the ultimate form of elitist (non) communication, a set of inscrutable hieroglyphs used by the high priests of the Cult of Management and their acolytes to exclude, bamboozle and intimidate the uninitiated.

For most other people, this style of communication is hopelessly inefficient and irrelevant - it doesn't entertain, so it's a terrible way to teach anything worth knowing. It's not just ugly, it's also the precise opposite of being utilitarian.

Or, as somebody who hasn't been retrofitted with the default management droid's tin ear for language might say, it's neither use nor ornament.