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The Tyranny of Exactitude


Some waves are very precise. Or rather, they exist as the result of precision. The careful plotting of the sine function onto a graph, the exact oscillation of pressure over time that creates a certain sound. Some waves feel less precise: the particular lapping of the sea on a beach resulting from the local wind conditions.


The small, textual wave of the tilde, when placed before a figure, removes its exactness and in doing so expands its meaning. The figure ‘5’ can mean 5, only and exactly that. It is a concept with definite boundaries, on either side of which lies not-fiveness. Place a tilde before it and what that figure conveys bleeds out, encompassing 4, 6 - perhaps even 3 and 7. Like a pebble dropped in a puddle, what is acceptable as being ‘approximately 5’ radiates out.


The definition of ‘approximate’ (from Latin proximus, meaning closest or very near) is ‘close to the actual, but not completely accurate or exact’. In mathematics, something is deemed ‘approximate’ when it is not exact, but close enough to be useful (an inexact word if ever there was one). So exactitude is ‘useful’, but so can approximation be. It is not always possible to be exact, a situation that requires knowability and (almost always) measurement of some kind.


According to Measurement in Daily Life, a document produced by the National Measurement Office, ‘measurement provides structure, removes chaos, reduces waste, ensures open and fair markets, supports precision where required and saves lives, money and time.’1 In short, holds our entire world together. ‘…Supports precision where required.’ Where required. But how do we know when precision is necessary, and who decides? It can seem like our society is increasingly obsessed with precision, especially as the recording and analysis of data in the pursuit of knowledge is further and further enabled by ever-increasing processing power. We might even take to measuring and recording precise information about our own lives - how many minutes of quality sleep we had last night, the nutritional value of what we ate, how far we ran down to the last yard. As Jonah Lehrer puts it, ‘In an age that worships precise information, vagueness feels like wilful laziness.’2 Measurement in Daily Life makes it sound like precise measurement is the stabilising factor on which civilisation is built. Perhaps then the tilde is an agent provocateur, fuzzying the reliability of known factors.


But what of the value of not-knowing? So many of our most-valued human activities and concepts come out of a place of vagueness or not-knowing. We value mystery in certain contexts. In fact, the things that we consider to distinguish us as human are the concepts that could be labelled ‘things not wholly understood.’


Vagueness is potentiality, space for something not yet known. An experiment run by Catherine Clement at Eastern Kentucky University3 found that creative problem-solving ability can be increased by using vague terms to couch the problem, because domain-specific words make analogical reasoning harder. A little fuzziness allows for more metaphorical connections to be made. Precision, while stabilising, can sometimes be the shutting of a door.


The removal of ambiguity can similarly scupper best efforts to reach a goal. In a study conducted in 2010, researchers found that the freedom of interpretation afforded by vague information allowed subjects to ‘generate positive response expectancies’ and thereby perform better. As the researchers write, this may seem surprising because ‘previous research has demonstrated that people prefer precise information over vague information because it gives them a sense of security and makes their environments more predictable’.4 But precise, disappointing feedback can be disheartening. Exactness makes demands of us that it seems easier to fail at.


As Kees van Deemter points out in Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness,5 vague concepts utterly permeate our real, lived day-to-day linguistically. We unconsciously employ vagueness and approximation all the time – of course, exactitude is not always practical. But even when it is available, it is not always the most useful. Consider the weather forecast: I know that it was 22°C yesterday, and will be 18°C today, but what I really want to know is that it will feel ‘slightly cooler’. My understanding of what that means is based on previous experience, comparative knowledge – an individual (Barthesian) ‘lexicon’6 of warm spring days, leading to the possibility of my understanding it to mean something subtly different to the person next to me. It could not be a more loose and indefinite way of communicating. But no matter how much our access to precise information increases, it seems we cannot get by without them. Pinning figures and concepts down is all well and good, but sometimes we need a little wiggle room.

1: Measurement in Daily Life, National Measurement System (2013).


2: In Praise of Vagueness, Jonah Lehrer (2011)


3: Clement, C. (1994) ‘Effect of Structural Embedding on Analogical Transfer: Manifest versus Latent Analogs’, The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 107, No. 1 (Spring, 1994)


4: Mishra, H., Mishra, M. and Shiv, B. (2011) ‘In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster’, Psychological Science, Vol. 22 No. 6


5: Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness, Kees van Deemter (2010)


6: In 'The Rhetoric of the Image', Roland Barthes describes a body of knowledge within a viewer or reader, which we use to make sense of new information, as a lexicon


A: Image: Yas/Tenor


B: Subverting domestic exactitude

All content unless otherwise specified © Louise Evans 2017