The New Tower of Babel

December 3, 2021

The Bible tells us that when the people built the city of Babel, God confused their language and they could not communicate very well with each other. Why would a confusion of language happen at that point in time?

 When they decided to build the city, humans were moving from being a nomadic society to a settled society. It was a major change. Why would the language get confused? Because language reflects experiences, and agricultural society uses analogies from agriculture that are different from those of a nomadic society.

 Our nomadic ancestors learned a lot from trees, starting with how to adapt to changing seasons. Once we settled into developed communities, we derived our analogies from streets, buildings, infrastructure and objects. Today our language is driven by images from technology. We say things like “I am fading,” “tone it down” and “my system is overstressed.”  

 Today we are going through tremendous technological change which is creating new phenomena for which we don't have words. If we use old words for a new phenomenon, we totally confuse each other. We are experiencing a new Tower of Babel . A linguist told me that a startling percentage of words we use today — I forgot the exact amount — did not exist 30 years ago. We're constantly creating new words to communicate new phenomena and in the process, many people don't know what the new words mean. Or, we use old words for a new phenomenon and now the confusion is even bigger because we don't know what we are talking about.

     I’ve experienced it in my professional practice. We were designing  an organization structure and  I insisted, as I always do, on defining what specific words meant so that people knew what each role is supposed to do. At a certain point, I dared to ask “what is engineering?” A big discussion started. We found out that the word engineering was being used in many applications. There was financial engineering. There was product engineering. There was production engineering. There was human resources engineering, new product engineering, technological engineering, social engineering. And then we had systems engineering. At this point, the discussion got so heated that the person who was a systems engineer threatened to quit the company because he felt offended that nobody knew what his job was or what his profession entailed.

    In another high-tech manufacturing company, we spent the whole day just discussing “What is a module?” Everybody had their own interpretation. Just imagine the confusion when you plan to get a module and they deliver you a set of non integrated components. Another example: When does an improvement of a product make it into a new product. Is it merely an enriched product, or is it really a new product?

     The most interesting debate has been about the word “budgeting.” People come to a company from different organizational cultures, and they bring their experiences. So, budgeting is forecasting for one person. For another, budgeting is just the allocation of resources. For a third person, budgeting is a statement of the most desirable state. That disparity can create a tremendous confusion when it’s time to produce a working document.

     The new world — the digital world — continues to evolve posing new challenges to communication. When I work with the under 30 generation and need to deal with cryptocurrencies and NFTs, I admit most of the words are alien to me. And I am not the only one. Many in the room have different meanings to the different new words.

     We live in a new Tower of Babel. In my practice, I do not start the discussion to solve a problem until we clearly define and agree upon what the words mean. The participants are not always happy with this.  “We did not hire you to teach us English,” some might say. But I insist. I use a joke to make my point. How do you say “an airplane” in (choose a language of a country the people in the room won’t know; let’s say Hiri Motu spoken in Papua New Guinea). Aaaaaaaaaaaa!  What are they pointing to? An airplane? Or a cloud? Or a bird? Let’s stop being Papuans, missing a word for a new phenomena. Let us all be sure about what we are talking about if we are going to communicate and solve our problems.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes