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Semantics, and being wrong on the internet

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How do libertarianism, cloud computing and George Orwell collide?  Internet arguments, that’s how!  Nerds love arguing about semantics, and for good reason: the word choice shapes how we and others view the world.

Let’s consider for a moment the term Left Libertarianism. I have my own thoughts on the topic, and consider the term the closest of various available descriptors to my own views on the world.

If the internet is to be believed, I am not the only person who identifies with the term “Left Libertarian”.  I certainly didn’t write the Wikipedia entry on the topic.  A quick Google of the term leads to a number of websites for various groups that identify with the term.  In fact, so many different beliefs fall under the term “Left Libertarian” that if you get us in a room together we’ll have wild debates about which particular strain best represents the whole.

I don’t think all of the above is a delusion.  I mean, it’s entirely possible I dreamed up going to pubs with other left libertarians, but the existence of the internet evidence make me lean towards “not quite hallucinating social events (yet)”.  So I’ll proceed from here with the assumption that left libertarianism exists as a classification of belief systems.

Now, let’s discuss today’s recent internet argument.  It begins with my debating partner asserting that I am not a libertarian, because he is unable to separate the term “libertarian” from the hard right libertarians that exist predominantly in the USA.

I attempted repeatedly to point out that left libertarianism and right libertarianism isn’t the same thing.  No dice.  The individual in question simply could not get past the term “libertarian”.  In his mind the use of that word had very specific connotations and that was that.

Fair enough.  Left libertarians are rather used to this.  Normally, I’d just shrug the encounter off as another in a long series of identical encounters, however, the night progressed into further arguments about linguistic semantics and the recalcitrance of this individual regarding the nuance of “left” versus “right” libertarianism becomes important.

Choosing your definitions

Recently, I wrote an article in which I defined various tech terms that I commonly use. Among these definitions is the controversial distinction between Public Cloud provider and Service Provider Cloud provider.

A common school of thought amongst technologists is that any organization making services available over the public internet is a public cloud provider. The key word for them here is “public”.  I happen to disagree.

When I say “Public Cloud provider” I mean specifically Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM.  All the rest I consign to the “Service Provider” category.

The why of this is twofold.  First off, there is a world of difference between the Big Four public cloud providers and everyone else.  They dwarf the service providers not only in the scale of their networks, but in the diversity of the services they offer.

Even popular service providers like Rack Space, Digital Ocean or Heroku can’t compare to the big four public cloud providers.  The differences are just so immense that they are their own category.

My debating partner for the night appeared to be exceptionally frustrated, even angry that I refused to change my views on use of the term “Public Cloud” to reflect his.  He suggested that I instead use the term “major public cloud” or something similar.

I bailed on the argument before pursuing it much past this point, in large part because of something else that he had said.  He said that he felt it was our job to educate others, and implied that for this reason I should choose his definition of “Public Cloud”.  This is an idea I’ll come back to.

Perception deltas

In addition to the gap in capability between service providers and the big public cloud providers there is a real world difference in how non nerds talk about cloud computing.  When your Average Joe talks about “the cloud” they typically mean – at their most expansive – the Big Four public cloud providers and the SaaS offerings that live in their ecosystems.

Even that’s being generous.  My admittedly unscientific polling in this area consistently shows that “cloud = Amazon” in the minds of most, with Google and Microsoft both getting the odd mention.  Including IBM is a huge hat tip to the nerds as it is.

As I see it, tech nerds aren’t exactly a huge percentage of the population.  So when I write I need to take into account more than just the viewpoints of nerds.  Common usage of language is just as important as semantic accuracy, and we collectively decide all the time to use definitions that are not entirely accurate or make no sense.

My personal linguistic frustration with common usage is our collective inability to understand the difference between “on-premises” and “on-premise”.  The former means “on location” and the latter “on idea”.  This oddity also comes plays a role in the night’s ponderings.

Power words

With the night’s debating partner, individual words have enormous power.  “Left Libertarianism” means nothing to him because he can’t get past the word “libertarian”.  He cannot separate one loud group of not very nice people who self-identify with that term with all the other people who identify – or partly identify – with that term.

Similarly, any discussion about Public Cloud providers simply ends at the word “Public” for him.  That’s the important part, as it if for so many people.  I find it frustrating that he’s utterly immune to the irony of suggesting the addition of a qualifier; in my experience saying “Major Public Cloud” is a bit like saying “Left Libertarian”.  The qualifiers get lost in the power words.

(Note: I am entirely aware that “words that have power” is likely more accurate, and that “Power Words” probably has some specific meaning to some group of people.  Hush.  “Words that have power” just sounds dumb.)

By rights “Left Libertarian” should be different from “Libertarian”  Just as $Variable_1 should be different from $Variable_2.  They’re just labels.  But that’s not how humans work.

Humans aren’t machines.  We don’t consider all linguistic identifiers equal.  We fixate on things.  Why does “on-premise” bother me so much?  I have no idea.  The same individual so frustrated that segment “Public Cloud Provider” from “Service Provider” once told me I should give up trying to correct people who use “on-premise”.  As he put it: it’s not a hill he’s willing to die on.

Service providers

Right in the middle of this I want to throw the term Internet Service Provider (ISP).  I gave up before getting to this part of the argument with tonight’s debating partner, but it’s worth a brief mention.

If you ask your average citizen when the term ISP means they will say something to the effect of “the company that lets me access the internet”.  In other words: your Fibre Optic, Cable or ADSL provider.  I’d be very curious to see how many associated the term with mobile providers.

Legally, however, ISP means something different.  In many jurisdictions ISPs include domain registrars, web hosting companies, e-mail providers, backhaul providers, colo facilities and more.

What’s really interesting is that over time the common definition of the term ISP overrode how nerds used it as well.  With a few rare exceptions, a tech nerd talking about an ISP means quite specifically an internet access provider.  Everything else they’ll lump under “cloud” in one form or another.

This leads to interesting internet arguments between tech nerds and law nerds.

ISP isn’t the only term where common usage has overcome the use of one or more class of nerds.  I’m certain, for example, that I don’t have to rehash the history of the term “hacker” for anyone reading this blog.

Linguistic control

Where this all gets stitched together is in the concept of linguistic choice as a forcing factor in conceptualization.  George Orwell taught us that how we use words determines how we can communicate concepts.  Over time, this can even affect our ability to conceptualize various concepts in the first place.

The beliefs of the individual provide context.  Tonight’s debate partner is ardently “pro-cloud”.  I would go so far as to call him a True Believer.  He evangelizes not only the subscription-based/OpEx model of service provision, but the Agile methodology, cloud native application development…all of it.

Everything relating to the word “cloud” is important to him both personally and professionally.  It makes perfect sense that he would have a very specific view on what words should mean and that he would believe those definitions should be used to “educate” others.  He wants those people to believe as he does.

I, on the other hand, am far more agnostic about the cloud.  I view the word “cloud” itself as so distorted by marketing as to be utterly meaningless without taking some attempt to narrow a definition.  Remember, there are dozens of vendors who have tried to assert “virtualization = cloud”, followed by “hyperconvergence = cloud”.

It should thus not come as a shock that I don’t get all weepy over the educational value of the term “public cloud”.  When I talk about things cloudy the difference between the big public cloud providers and the service providers is almost always critical.

I don’t have time to get caught up in people mentally skipping qualifiers because they saw a power word.  It’s actually more effective to link to a definition that they outright dislike – such as how I segment public cloud providers from service providers – and proceed from there.

The semantics nerds will then think nasty thoughts about me as a person, but most of them then proceed to understand what it is I’m trying to communicate.  This isn’t true when I just slap qualifiers on terms with power words.

It’s the same reason I don’t write Internet Access Service Providers.  It means nothing.  All anyone will see is ISP.

Someone is wrong on the internet

I would like to think that both opinions on the use of the term “public cloud” are valid.  I certainly see my debate partner’s point.  I even understand the linguistic control concepts that make the word selection so important to that individual, even if I don’t share his convictions or beliefs.

Similarly, I would like to think my own viewpoint is valid.  We all like to think our viewpoints are valid!  I also recognize that it is highly unlikely the night’s debate partner will ever consider it to be so.

When I wrote my definition article I told my editor that this would probably end up being a yearly thing.  Definitions change.  Language is fluid.  For me, those definitions are a tool.  A way to clarify what I mean so that I don’t have to type the same explanation in every article, list the same disclaimers and define a series of terms.

Maybe, when I revisit those definitions a year from now some new term will have evolved to mean “the big four public cloud providers”, and I can use that.  I could then use “public cloud” to mean “everything that isn’t on a private network”.  Whatever “private network” means when everything has a publicly addressable IPv6 address.

Maybe.  I view the terms themselves as largely arbitrary, and such flippancy is probably driven by an unhealthy amount of cynicism.

The lesson to be extracted from all of this?  When you challenge the terms that help someone evangelize their beliefs through linguistic shaping, you are challenging their beliefs – and thus them – directly.

Now go forth and frolic in the market of ideas and enjoy the evolution of nomenclature as beliefs, convenience and common understanding all compete to solidify the definition of the words we use…and how we conceive of the world.

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