The name of the thing probably doesn’t matter

England and America are two countries separated by the same language. (George Bernard Shaw)

My family first got a television with a remote control when I was about the same age as my now nine-year old son. Like many British families, the remote control was called anything other than it’s proper name: the ‘doofer’, the ‘thing’, the ‘widget’. It didn’t matter because, 100% of the time, the person being asked to pass the remote control (or do something with it) knew what was being referred to.

One big thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is that American English and British English differs greatly around precision. Americans seem have a word for everything. I’m not an etymologist, but I should imagine that the reason British English lacks precision in some cases is because it’s had so many foreign influences. We tend to import words from other languages – in particular French (e.g. cliché) or German (e.g. schadenfreude) and, like our legal system, we base things off precedent. American English, on the other hand, was explicitly defined by Noah Webster.

As I noted in my thesis, follow-up ebook, and even the only (unpublished) academic paper I’ve ever written, ambiguity can be a good thing. It can be productive. It can lead to useful outcomes and provide breathing space for ideas to morph and evolve. Ambiguity can help avoid the situation where terms become (what Richard Rorty called) ‘dead metaphors’.

I was reminded of the difference between American English and British English this week in a post written, ironically enough, by a Frenchman, Serge Ravet. He took issue with something I’ve written about recently – namely Open Badges and credentialing. Serge’s point rests on the difference between ‘credentialing’ and ‘recognition’:

I used to say credentialing is ancillary to recognition. Credentialing is a servant to recognition and it should stay in that subordinate position. Problems arise when the servant becomes the master — think of Dirk Bogard in Joseph Losey’s The Servant. I am afraid that it is the situation we are fostering when equating Open Badges to credentials.

I’m not going to rehash the arguments I’ve already made, but instead I want to make another point, identical to title of this post, i.e. the name of the thing probably doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the name of all the parts in the engine to fix the engine. We don’t need to be able to reel off the names of every different form of government to spot a tyranny. Or, to quote the Bard:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

I don’t particularly care how you define digital literacies so long as what you do with that definition is worthwhile. The same goes for Open Badges: so long as you’re using the interoperable metadata standard, you’re free to call what your’e doing anything you like.

As for what badges stand for, whether they’re ‘credentials’ or ‘recognition’ or whatever, let’s have a philosophical discussion! I’ve got a degree in Philosophy, bring it on. I love this stuff. But let’s not pretend what we’re doing is anything that’s likely to make any practical difference anytime soon. There’s a difference between an ontological position that says, “this thing is X, not Y” and “this thing can be whatever you want it to be!”

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m in the latter camp. Do what you want. Use Open Badges in tired, conventional, boring ways. Alternatively, use badges in pedagogically exciting ways that liberate young people from the shackles placed upon them. Respect your context. Or don’t. Just use the metadata standard. That’s the revolutionary thing.

Give people choice. See what happens.



As part of my doctoral studies into digital literacy I stumbled into something that saved my thesis: ambiguity. This blog will serve to document occasional updates to my sporadic research into this area.

Just before submitting my thesis to Durham University in 2011 I wrote an article with my thesis supervisor entitled Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity. This takes the work of William Empson, as well as a couple of thinkers after him, and applies it to the concepts of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital literacy’.

Four years later, in December 2015, I ran a seminar at Manchester Metropolitan University with a similar title to that 2011 article: