Wagner James Au once told me, “Never start an article with a definition.” Actually, that’s generally pretty good advice for writers in general, I’m told. The problem is that I need to try to sneak my definitions in somewhere and when I leave them until later occasionally they get missed, or worse, misinterpreted.

You see, talk about virtual environments goes in all directions at once. No sooner do you get a conversation saddled up than it gallops towards pretty much every point of the horizon. The essential problem is that none of us know what anyone’s really talking about more than half the time.

Most cultures traditionally rail against the introduction of new terms, preferring instead to use an existing term to mean the new thing in addition to what it already means.

This actually tends to make me a supporter of technical languages – those specialist terms that grow up around any technical or precise discipline. If I talk to a computer scientist and she uses the term “polynomial time”, or “NP-Complete” or “singly linked list”, there’s absolutely no doubt as to what she’s referring to. Each term can bear only one meaning.

Likewise a structural engineer says “thin shell” or “gridshell”, or “tensegrity”, again, there’s no doubt about the meaning. If you’re not a structural engineer, you might have to go look it up, but having done so, there is no doubt.

There’s a good reason for all of this. When you’re putting up a bridge, you don’t want anyone getting confused over materials, using the wrong concrete, or ordering a half-million of the wrong rivets. In software, you want dozens of people to bring their work together and have it fit together, and not need months of reworking because someone thought your core data types and algorithms actually meant something else.

Nobody wants to see a cellular biologist get granulocytes and agranulocytes get mixes up. That’d be just plain embarrassing.

But then we sit down and try to talk about virtual environments (or virtual worlds, if you prefer). Not everyone at the table is using the same definition of virtual. Most of them wouldn’t come to any agreement on the word “world”.

I can think of no less than five distinct meanings of the word “governance”, and there’s rarely any indication as to which one of those five (or a combination of more than one) that a speaker actually means, unless you actually stop to ask them.

Then a half hour goes by as everyone around the table has to explain that isn’t what they personally mean by “governance”, but that they were thinking of something different.

And that’s why the overall discussion of virtual environments just kind of limps along, making very little real progress these last 20 years. We’re talking about concepts, and media and components and methodologies and viewpoints that are (virtually, heh) as large as life.

Yet most of us have yet to notice that we lack the common terms to describe those things clearly and without confusion. Make up words if you have to, or resign yourself to laying out your definitions.

I’m not exactly asking that we leverage our virtual core synergies to create an interpersonal value proposition that can be horizontally migrated into the intercommunicative whitespaces of the vertically interconnected mediaspace.

Just that we all work to agree on some clear, simple and workable definitions to make talking about our favorite field more useful, productive and interesting.

Is that too much to ask?

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