In a business world that values software engineering and an educational world that hopes coding leads to pupils’ success in future careers, it is worth saying language matters.

However, both education and business have allowed the engineering sense of language to overtake its wider social and human meanings.

Code is language

Software is dependent on specific meanings of words, logical orders of lines and clarity of arguments. All of those ideas hark back to the time when mathematics and language mixed freely in education. The teachers of Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe respected speech and taught its components alongside mathematics. Look at the Seven Arts and, in particular, the Trivium.

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Trivium diagram from 1210 (British Library)

Language is power

Free speech as a foundation of modern society is believed everywhere. It is clear in both the light and the shade; in both the countries who enable and the countries who disable their citizens access to it. The ability to use language to gain power is recognised by politicians and demonstrable through history. Power is formed in words. Nowadays, we also see how business is formed by words in the algorithms that underlie international finance and social networks.

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Eleanor Roosevelt holding up a large poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The power of language is not code

The historic strength of language in free speech and the current strength of it in code are a confabulation. We transfer the success of one in forming our civil society to a belief in the other to create a successful future society.

Code withers our full sense of humanity when we make it more than an engineering tool. It is the Birmingham Screwdriver of social change. It is why Digital Solutionism creates problems.

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Frontcover of To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

Language as engineering fails

This Medium article is being written because of a public relations disaster by the room sharing app company, AirBNB, this week.

The company is in the midst of a political campaign in California about its legal rights. This current issue is part of a longer story that includes the state previously demanding AirBNB hosts pay the same tax as hotels and motels.

This week, AirBNB put posters up across San Francisco.

AirBNB poster (by jessamyn west as posted by Wired)

The posters were ridiculed and they were pulled down.

A company that understood and created huge value from the engineering power of language in code did not understand the real meaning of language.

Semantics matter

This failure to respect language is visible in UX with its wireframes without content and in corporate communications that swing uncontrollably from unreadable jargon to awful wackywriting.

This is why people who think of language is core to human experience need to be more vocal.

Information Architecture is a counterweight to the frictionless user experience hell of UX. Books by Andrew Hinton and Abby Covert show how language matters in digital business, not just software engineering.

I run workshops about future design for wearable and internet of design devices but they are not about the engineering. I use experiential exercises to enable people to understand how we make meaning personally, socially and multimodally.

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Workshop at SouthBySouthwest Interactive (SxSWi) 2014

Remember.

Code is great but language is greater.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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