Are Concise and Precise Mutually Exclusive?

To be concise is to minimize the amount of time and language to communicate a concept. To be precise is to make clear the boundaries of meaning- to make it impossible (as much as possible) to misunderstand how much is covered by one’s words but also how much is not covered. It is to tie down every loose end, to anticipate and pre-emptively answer and resolve every possible question, concern, contradiction, confusion, and counter-argument. It is simply a fact that this takes more time and more language than to not do it. We can also be more concise if we take on smaller tasks: if we keep our subject matter extremely narrow, and simply cut potential areas out of the discussion as “extra-topical.”

Another shortcut is to make assumptions about what the audience simply won’t be confused about—to assume that the audience will not be misled on certain points and omit that relevant discussion.  Explanations take more space if they include proofs of the premises used in the primary argument. If we simply assert them as axiomatic and let our primary argument remain conditional upon the validity of the premises, we can save time. However, this comes at the cost that our argument is less powerful, less clear, and more open to misinterpretation and abuse.

In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), Neil Postman notes the difference in length between the Lincoln-Douglas debates (several days of multi-hour speeches) and present-day political debates (one hour, split into few-minute sound bites and slogans). Postman’s analysis is that news, social/political discussion, and other public discourses are reduced to quick, pithy sound-bites in the latter 1/3 or ¼ of the 20th century. My additional analysis is that the quality of discussions, debates, and overall understanding of issues has declined drastically. (For examples, consider 4chan, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, or other community discussion opportunities online.)

We may see this as a tension between a cultural environment which emphasizes speed (`a la Virillo) and the slow and steady requirements of human understanding (which is unwilling to yield to cultural demands of speed). As a sped-up culture pushes for the “quick-and-easy” sound bites and summaries, areas of society that demand deeper comprehension will be increasingly at odds with the tech-culture. Law is one such area.

In law, explanations must be precise. Laws and contracts must be clear enough to be understood, and should strive to be so clear as to not be misunderstood. If law sacrifices clarity and precision, problems multiply. The grand value in a technological capitalist society is efficiency. The precision required by law can be seen as “front-loading” the efficiency because greater inefficiency results from resolving problems created by imprecise law. In this way, both precision and conciseness can be mutually exclusive yet both serve the end goal of efficiency when applied in different contexts.


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