Fowler’s Fools: and musing about open and public and shared

I spent much of my childhood and youth in an unusual household, on the 4th floor of a block of flats in central/south Calcutta. Surrounded by books, and by people who’d actually read the books. Full of life, from about 5am to around 1am, and sometimes in between. Populated by around 10 “residents” (including me, my 4 siblings and my parents), and on average another half-dozen “guests” (who sometimes spent more time there than some of the residents). It was not unusual to have two dozen people there of an evening, in what was meant to be 1500 square foot of 2-bedroomed flat.

Wonderful times.

There’d always be something going on. Duplicate bridge in this corner; chess there; carroms in the next room; an intense game of scrabble; a guitar being strummed pensively; late 60s-early 70s music playing in the background, the odd game of cards. Even table-tennis, played on an amalgam of wooden desks with a line of books serving as the net.

If you didn’t feel like “playing” something, then you could just join in the conversation. Or conversations. Usually covering the simple stuff: religion, politics, sport, food and relationships. A classic adda. [Incidentally, I was delighted to find out that the OED now has an entry for adda]. And if you didn’t fancy that, then you could just kibitz, or stay in the corner where trivia questions were being lobbed across the room like water balloons.

In such surroundings you would expect a few odd things to be taken as normal. Doing the Times crossword was one of them; for most of my childhood, we took two copies of the Statesman; for a short period, we took three. My father would not countenance waking up without the day’s virgin Times crossword to complete.

It was a strange house, a literary house. People would wander about spouting poetry from Herrick to Coleridge, Burns to Ogden Nash, trade quotations from Shakespeare and Shaw, sayings from Wilde and PG Wodehouse, Churchill and Caryl Brahms.

Some managed to go placidly amidst the noise and haste, reading whatever took their fancy. Not just fiction and nonfiction, but reference books as well. Of which we had a goodly many. They included, amongst others,  Chambers’ 20th Century Dictionary. Bartlett’s Familiar QuotationsHobson-Jobson.

And Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a personal favourite. (My thanks to Skoob Books for discovering and sharing the rare photo of Henry Watson Fowler).

Which brings me to the point of this post.

One of my favourite sections of Modern English Usage, Fowler’s magnum opus, reads as follows:

respective(ly). Delight in these words is a wide-spread but depraved taste; like soldiers and policemen, they have work to do, but, when the work is not there, the less we see of them the better; of ten sentences in which they occur, nine would be improved by their removal. The evil is considerable enough to justify an examination at some length; examples may be sorted into six groups: A, in which the words give information needed by sensible readers; B, in which they give information that may be needed by fools; C, in which they say again what is said elsewhere; D, in which they say nothing intelligible; E, in which they are used wrongly for some other word; & F, in which they give a positively wrong sense.

The article then goes on to detail each of these six “uses”. Here’s what Fowler has to say about type B, “foolproof uses”:

The particular fool for whose benefit each respective(ly) is inserted will be defined in brackets. Final statements are expected to be made today by Mr Bonar Law & Mr Millerand in the House of Commons & the Chamber of Deputies respectively (r. takes care of the reader who does not know which gentleman or which Parliament is British, or who may imagine both gentlemen talking in both Parliaments). /The Socialist aim in forcing a debate was to compel the different groups to define their respective attitudes (the reader who may expect a group to define another group’s attitude). /It is very far from certain that any of the names now canvassed in Wall Street will secure the nomination at the respective Republican and Democratic Conventions (the reader who may think that Republicans and Democrats hold several united conventions)./ We have not the smallest doubt that this is what will actually happen, & we may discuss the situation on the footing that the respective fates of these two Bills will be as predicted (the reader who has read the prediction without sufficient attention to remember that it is double).

Foolproof uses. What a delightful turn of phrase.

You know something? I wish someone would write something similar on topics like shared, public and open, particularly when it comes to analysing costs.

How many degrees in rocket science does it take to be able to figure out that something shared will cost the sharers less than if each had that something in a not-shared state?

How clever does one have to be in order to figure out that building walls and doors and locks is more expensive than not building them?

What level of IQ does a person need to assess that something available to all is likely to be cheaper than something exclusive?

Making things private and closed and exclusive comes at a cost.

A cost that is considerably higher than that associated with making things public and open and shared.

There will always be reasons to make things private. But that is not the default.

There will always be reasons to make things closed. But that is not the default.

There will always be reasons to make things exclusive. But that is not the default.

People need to understand the waste involved in making things private, closed, exclusive when they don’t need to be so. More on this later.

7 thoughts on “Fowler’s Fools: and musing about open and public and shared”

  1. “People need to understand the waste involved in making things private, closed, exclusive when they don’t need to be so” Indeed they do, but too often the benefits of sharing are seen instead as costs, and the price of making something exclusive can be turned into externalities and not taken into account, skewing the calculations.

    Perhaps we need to start assembling an evidence base to support openness rather as those campaigning against software patents are assembling prior art, so that it’s available to support those arguing within companies or government.

  2. Probably I am mistaken are not getting the point. But I am unable to agree with the last set of points. It is my opinion, that in certain relations, private is default, closed is default and exclusive is default. This is the difficulty Facebook is facing with certain segment of its users.

  3. JP, Bill – I do think we also need to define the “things” concerned, as I suspect some of these “things” are best shared, some are best shared within smaller groups, and some are best kept private.

    So fo example I am happy to share my thoughts about the future of technology with any who would listen, I am less happy to share data about my kids outside of my family circle, and do not see why say my financial records should be seen by anyone apart from myself and the institution it concerns (and I balk at the way they seem to be sharing those records between themselves!)

    I am also getting increasingly concerned about the increasing trend by some Social Media proponents to advance the frankly sinister view that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. If it wasn’t mainly being advanced by people who have something to gain, I may be less concerned but it is still a concern as until recently that was the sort of things that Bad Guys said – for good reason.

  4. @billt great idea. The Creative Commons approach to evidence, filing away stories related to ROI for openness and making them freely available. So how shall we start it? I think I will write a separate post, quote it as your idea, and see where it takes us.

  5. Open > Public > Shared > Private > Closed > Exclusive – should be, but not mans nature.

    “Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.”
    — John le Carré

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