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July 04, 2020  |  A beef with cloud metaphors  |  731 hit(s)

One of the effects of this year's protests is that it has brought about heightened consciousness about language and how it affects or reflects certain thinking. For example, there have been discussions in the editorial community about capitalizing the word Black "in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense."

In the world of IT, we've been discussing the implications of certain terms for a while. The Microsoft style guide has suggested for a over a decade that writers avoid the terms whitelist and blacklist in order to avoid a connotation that white==good and black==bad. (I wrote about this a while back.)

Our own style guide has a section on inclusive language, and it suggests finding alternatives to a range of language that, when you look at it consciously, can have negative connotations or the possibility of offense. In addition to disrecommending the word blacklist, we tell our authors to use alternatives to terms like crippled system, dummy variables, sanity checks, native features, and first-class citizen.

A short digression about cloud technology. (For tl;dr, you can skip to the discussion of terminology.) We work in the world of cloud computing, which has its own concepts and vocabulary. The cloud, as the jokey definition goes, is just using someone else's computer. More specifically, it means using someone else's one or ten or hundreds of computers, because a fundamental benefit of the cloud is that you can adjust computing power as needed. For example, if you have a retail business, your website might need medium power normally, low power during a summer slump, and heavy-duty computing power to handle your yearly sale. The point is that your need for computing resources goes up and down, and rather than having to build out your own data center to accommodate the maximum possible demand (and whose high capacity might mostly just sit idle), you build your system in the cloud and spin up computers (servers) when demand is high, and take them down when they're no longer needed.

In this environment, computers are commodities. Any single computer is just a faceless worker in your overall computing infrastructure. Compare that to the computer sitting on your desk; you've probably personalized how it runs, installed many updates, and otherwise fussed over it. If one of the faceless computers in the cloud crashes, it's not a big deal; another one spins up and carries on the work. On the other hand, if your personal computer crashes, it's usually a disaster.

Ok, back to terminology. To conceptualize the difference between the faceless fleet of computers in the cloud and your personal computer, technologists devised the metaphor "cattle, not pets."[1] If a computer is a quasi-anonymous something that can be replaced any time, it's "cattle"; if it's an indispensable part of your work, it's a "pet."

Some authors love this metaphor, because, undeniably, it has explanatory power. More than once it's appeared in a document I'm editing, and if I question it, I'll be pointed to how widespread the expression is in IT/cloud texts. And we try to use the vocabulary of our audience.

However. One of my colleagues recently pointed out what might be obvious to a lot of people: the expression "cattle, not pets" is … problematic. One of our principles is "avoid unnecessarily violent language," and once you think about it, you realize that there's implicit violence in the metaphor as pertains to the fate of the "cattle." Moreover, there are cultures in which no cow is just "cattle," and for whom the idea of animals being killed is abhorrent. Therefore, we've updated our guidance to "avoid the use of figurative language that relates to the slaughter of animals."

This sets up a tension we sometimes have when we tell writers to avoid terminology that's still common in a field. We might ask authors to avoid whitelist or cattle-not-pets, and they'll point out that these are well-understood expressions and that using some alternative form potentially confuses readers. ("Allowlist? Did you mean whitelist? Why not just say so?") And people might search for these terms and they'll have no joy if they don't appear in our documentation. Plus it can give off the vibe that we don't know our own field.

But change begins at home. Sure, these problematic terms are part of the industry lingo. And we can't just ignore them out of existence. What we often do, then, is to include the expression parenthetically on first mention of the preferred term. So we might suggest something like "Create an allowlist (whitelist)" or "servers as commodities (sometimes referred to as 'cattle, not pets')" to tie the old term in the reader's mind to a new, better one.

We hope that the collective work of consciousness-raising by many editors and writers over a period of time will gradually alter the perception of problematic terms. The work is never truly done, of course, but it has to start somewhere.

PS I should note that not everyone supports the idea of this type of language change; there's plenty of pushback in the IT world against changing to "so-called inclusive language." These things are not easy.

[1] Devised to explain scaling by Bill Baker, adapted for the cloud by Randy Bias.