Deciphering the Jargon

In Isaac Azimov’s Foundation, there is a scene where a treaty of many thousands of words is subjected to a rigorous analysis by a computer.  The idea is to have the computer apply the semantic rules of language to find out exactly what the treaty really means.   When all the superfluous verbiage is trimmed and the convoluted grammar dissected, the result is null:  Neither side has any obligations nor rights with respect to the other.

Programmers have been working on this problem almost from the very first.  But language analysis, particularly the analysis of common usage, is a monstrous problem.  The reasons are several.  For one thing, language is connotative as well as denotative.  Then, too, every language breaks its own rules on a fairly regular basis.  And every language is full of inexplicable idioms.

The hardest challenge of all is ordinary conversation.  If you have ever listened to taped conversations (say some mafioso confab) you have probably noticed how it is made up of redundancies, bad grammar and maddening sentence fragments.  Just the sort of thing computers are poorly equipped to handle.

Specialist jargon, on the other hand, is usually limited and consistent in both grammar and vocabulary.  It is in this region that what the programmers call semantic engines have had their best success.  They have not come far enough to fulfill Azimov’s dream, but it is within sight.   Soon we will be able shove some specialist jargon like legalese in one end and get a short, logically indented, common sense translation out the other.

In the case of legalese, rendering away the fat will probably leave a surprisingly small residue of meat.  This will be entertaining enough.  But I suspect that it will be the Unintended Consequences of the operation that will be truly  revolutionary.  Take, for instance, the way our laws are made and interpreted.

All of us are aware of the charming habit our legislators have of writing in such a convoluted and obscure fashion that they provide full employment to layers of courts arguing about exactly what was intended, what was  written and what was executed (keeping in mind that every law the legislature passes generates dozens of bureaucratic regulations to implement it).

But just posit that some program comes along that purports to parse all the grammar and translate it into plain English.  What do you suppose will happen?

In the beginning, there will be lots of rival programs.  Each will offer differing interpretations.  Ergo, the courts will refuse to accept the output of any as canonical.  But I cannot imagine that harried law clerks, researchers, lawyers or even the judges themselves, all up to their armpits in paper, will be able to resist secretly running their cases through a favorite program.  Equally, I cannot imagine that legislators, swamped with proposals and amendments that are measured not in words but in inches of thickness will be able to resist the temptation.

In time, I think that such analyses will begin to creep, perhaps in the margins of argument,  into the courtroom and onto the legislative floor.  A little later along and the bureaucracies will begin to notice.  Politicians and pundits will pontificate passionately about the chaos in the state of interpretation.  Inevitably, standards committees will be set up to force consistency onto the algorithms that the programmers used.

At last there will come the day when the output will be standardized and consistent.  Being officially blessed, it will then also be officially accepted as officially correct in the courtrooms and the legislatures.

All of this, be it noted, not because anybody particularly planned it, but simply because humanity is lazy.  When technology offers a useful tool, it is nearly impossible to keep it from being used.

What next?

I would suggest that it will be very hard for a legislator to resist the temptation to shove every measure encountered through the mill to see what it really means.  Content will become naked.  Since reporters will be using the same analytical tool, it will become harder to demagogue one’s way past an unpleasant truth.  As a bonus, I think we will find a lot of pork highlighted so blatantly as to be an embarrassment.

Courts, presented with a Solomaic tool for the better splitting of Gordian knots, will find themselves, willy nilly, using the standard analysis as the final word.  “Legislative intentions be damned!” they will say, “This is what they law says and that is what it means.”

Taking it a little further, I imagine that the wonderfully obscure laws we now pass will become an endangered species.  If everyone is quietly parsing volumes of proposed verbiage into concise paragraphs before they vote, the pressure will grow to introduce the condensed form in the first place.  The momentum will predictably become irresistible.  The short form will become the new law.

So we will have laws being passed that said what they meant and courts that agreed with the meaning of the laws that were passed.  What an innovation!

We can imagine the process sweeping on.  The unambiguous laws will transfer the pressure to the implementing regulations as the next target.  It will suddenly be a simple matter to unambiguously prove or disprove the question of whether a given regulation did or did not implement exactly what the laws said.

Last of the obvious targets will be the enormous backlog of existing laws and regulations.  Imagine being able to analyze the entire corpus of Welfare laws and regulations and boil them down to an organized, non-redundant set of plain English sentences.  I suspect that all the old laws will gradually be replaced by their simplified children.

I love this kind of speculation.  But when I offered this particular one to a friend of mine, she thought about it for a while and then asked, a bit plaintively, what we will do with all of the lawyers, lobbyists and politicians that will be put out of work?


What I like best about this whole notion is that it is not some grand plan cleverly designed from the beginning to simplify the laws and hence put a lot of lawyers on the street.  (The well honed self-preservation of our legislation industry has been able to sidetrack all such romantically driven  proposals in the past and I see no reason to assume that has changed.)  Instead, it is a byproduct of inevitable progress of technology coupled with the inherent laziness of mankind.

In these I have much more faith.

I doubt, even once the legislation industry begins to realize what is happening, that a change so solidly rooted in short-term self-interest could be stopped for long.  Instead, I would predict a period of ineffectual efforts to hold back the tide,  culminating in an attempt to integrate it into a new system while retaining the maximum benefits of the old.  But the old game will be changed forever.

Fiction?  Perhaps.  But if I am sketching out a dream picture, at least let me finish it.  To complete the picture of any Deus Ex Machina, you really have to give it a name, like “Big Brother” or “Uncle Sam.”  Let me modestly suggest we call it “Mother.”  It makes for a nice picture.  All of the oxymoronically described “public servants” forced to bow before a new technology goddess and ask, “Mother, may I?”

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