Technology vs. Humanity

Terminologies: good or evil?

Due to some reason, I read through an article written in 1990 by Dorothy Winsor, titled The Construction of Knowledge in Organizations, which presents a stunning new view towards some critical failure contributing to the Challenger’s accident in 1986. One of Winsor’s points in this article is that the decision-making body at the time was not necessarily aware of the situation, which is contrary to the most widely accepted public perception of the official investigation on this accident. Winsor believes that people at different positions in both NASA and MTI (the organization which manufactured the notorious O-rings for space shuttles) had very different perceptions about the impact of temperature on the reliability of the O-rings. The engineers at both institutions were aware of the severity of the problem, but some communication failure made the decision-making body totally unaware of the potential dangers. Winsor said in the article that even though the engineers carried out certain tests and presented the test report which contains crucial information to the managers, they failed to properly interpret that very technical report to their bosses, and they made a even worse mistake by drawing their conclusion of the tests in a professional yet very weak way. Such interdiscipline communication failure, according to Winsor’s article, could be the culprit of the entire accident.

Winsor’s argument does look strong in this context, because this indeed is what we do. We engineers are used to communicate in terminologies — those highly condensed, accurate, and efficient words invented by, also we engineers. The one thing we always omit, although we are kind of aware of, is that all these good properties that terminologies have are only applicable to we engineers only, and they should never be used to facilitate interdiscipline communications without proper interpretations. I found one profound problem in the academic world, or even in real world engineering firms, that engineers tend to explain terminologies using terminologies. It may be someone who wants to show off, of just someone’s habit in the field. These bad practices still widely exist in the engineering discipline, so many years after that tragic event from which we could have learned something more than blaming a little group of people.

I am both a lover and hater of professional terminologies. Terminologies do “say it all” for many engineering communication purposes. Without them it will be much more difficult for engineers to exchange ideas efficiently, or it would be simply impossible for some one to publish a journal that can be reviewed by anyone in this field. Terminologies are essential protocols we need to communicate, as we engineers work in teams. On the other hand, however, I am strongly against the practice of using a lot of terminologies to facilitate illustrations for educational purposes, or even worse, for inter-discipline communications — like reporting to your boss. Math textbooks for universities in China are totally not readable to me because their extensive usage of meaningless terminologies, without proper interpretations anywhere. In English, most of the terminologies are self-explanatory, which is good news for us, but they also leave us of taking the risk of making very dangerous presumptions and misunderstandings.

So terminologies, good or bad, it’s all about finding that critical sweet spot…