Real-time

Submitted by Simone Parrish, Knowledge Manager & Webmaster, Innovation Network, Inc.

Simone writes:
Real-time is a term that makes sense in the IT/processing speed world, but has been adopted to refer to feedback collected hours, days, even weeks after an event. I see people using “real-time feedback loops” when what they mean is “quarterly surveys.”

Tony responds:
Real-time is a textbook example of how meaning gradually disintegrates once a piece of technical jargon becomes a fad.

The process starts when an obscure expression – something that most lay people couldn’t define accurately or at all – slips out of the lab or the academy and starts to become a little better understood by outsiders. Maybe the word or phrase shows up in newspaper science articles, or in the business media, or in the linguistic sausage-factories of the Internet. People start to get a whiff of its meaning – or think they do – and immediately set about misusing it. Savoring the expression’s intellectual or techy cachet, people who have no real need to talk about technical matters nonetheless use the cool-sounding thing as a metaphor, fancifully applying it to all sorts of ideas that they think somehow, tangentially, resemble the original meaning. By then, the word or phrase has become trendy – a condition as fatal to language as epidemics are to people – and everyone feels a need to use it. “Everyone,” of course, includes a great many people who never had the least idea what the expression actually meant in the first place.

The popularity of “real-time” started with an important technical meaning in computer programming: a system functions in “real-time” if it can respond to events as (or extremely soon after) they happen. In this technical sense, telephone conversations take place in “real-time” (you hear me as soon as I speak), but e-mail does not. That’s an important distinction in technology, as a Wikipedia author pointed out with the example of antilock brakes: their computer-controlled mechanism had better respond immediately and adjust accurately (adapting in “real-time”) as the driver slams on the brakes. Otherwise, . well, farewell driver. It doesn’t get much more concrete than that.

I think I witnessed one of the moments when this admirably solid idea started turning to mush. About ten years ago, I ran across a management advisory firm that specialized in what it called “real-time consulting.” It provided, if I recall, a pretty good service: Its experts worked side-by-side with clients during the day, learning their problems and uncertainties, and then presented possible solutions the very next morning. Clients loved it. But “real-time”? More than twelve hours later? Picture the anti-lock brakes on that schedule, and you see the problem. The phrase had slipped its moorings and was drifting off for ports unknown.

In computer programming, there is a need for a new phrase denoting the particular time constraints placed on a machine’s ability to execute commands in response to unfolding events. In most other circumstances, there’s no such need. The words “immediately” and “quickly,” and the phrases “simultaneously” or “as it’s happening,” all serve non-technical purposes excellently. The reality of time is not a subject of much dispute in most people’s lives. (Some people, unable to keep an appointment or to meet any promised deadline, might benefit from the phrase “unreal-time.” But that’s a separate issue.) Conversational English had utterly no need for this new phrase.

But need be damned, the language is now overrun with “real-time.” As the person who submitted this phrase to the Jargon Finder pointed out, it is now commonly applied to actions that take place over many days or weeks. “I see people using ‘real-time feedback loops,’ ” this correspondent writes, “when what they really mean is ‘quarterly surveys.’ “

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