UK paperback

Proactive

Is our readers learning?

Do you feel proactive when you consult a reference work? Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica,thinks you should:

What we are trying to do is shifting … to a much more proactive role for the user and reader where the reader is not only going to learn from reading the article but by modifying the article and – importantly – by maybe creating his own content or her own content

The reader is going to “learn… by modifying”? So the people modifying the articles don’t actually need to know anything about the subject before they start modifying? The modifying itself is supposed to be the way they learn? That’s “proactive”!1 Oh, but luckily, edits won’t go live until approved by “one of the company’s staff or freelance editors”. I suppose they can always check whether the new material looks correct by, er, going to Wikipedia.2

But it ill behoves me to carp at this exciting news. We can at least be very confident that, in time, Britannica will become a much more reliable source of information than it has hitherto been about old videogames and science-fiction TV series. Everybody wins!

  1. But what, dear readers, does the horrible term “proactive” actually add to the sense of, um, “active”?
  2. I confess that I have never edited my own Wikipedia article so as to make myself look more important and central to the critical intellectual debates of our time, etc. Do you think I should?
29 comments
  1. 1  Jeff Strabone  January 23, 2009, 5:24 am 

    ‘Proactive’ belongs to that annoying category of words with unnecessary prefixes. ‘Inter-related’ is another. If two things are ‘inter-related’, are they not also related?

    If the Britannica goes the wiki way, it may as well not exist. Isn’t the point of it to be an outstanding peer-reviewed reference?

    Should you edit your own Wikipedia entry? Please do. Currently, there are consecutive sentences that begin ‘He has also written’. But first, finish your third book so that the entry can be updated with another such sentence.

  2. 2  sw  January 23, 2009, 1:19 pm 

    Maybe I’m being a bit dull here, and I hasten to add that I’m not sure this is quite what Cauz is saying, but surely “proactive” generally means something like beginning to respond or act in advance of some presumed stimulus to act. For example, there’s some understandable difference between “I am actively seeking my professor’s guidance on what to write for my thesis” and “I am proactively seeking my professor’s guidance on what to write for my thesis”. Would you say that those two sentences are simply interchangeable? Or, excuse me, changeable? (After all, if two things are “interchangeable” they must be “changeable”, right?)

    I think that the Unspeak community should, en masse, head over to Wikipedia and update Steven Poole’s entry. I have gleaned, from years on this blog, that he was born in Lithuania in 1964 and is a long-time Bros fan, having even written an opera about the golden twins of 80s pop, entitled Brospera. It’s knowledge like this that belongs on wikipedia.

  3. 3  Steven  January 23, 2009, 6:57 pm 

    But first, finish your third book

    All right then, dammit!

    I think that the Unspeak community should, en masse, head over to Wikipedia and update Steven Poole’s entry.

    Someone could even write an entry for Unspeak! (There is some talk of why there isn’t one in the discussion page for my entry. I feel it would be invidious for me to do it.)

  4. 4  Steven  January 23, 2009, 6:59 pm 

    surely “proactive” generally means something like beginning to respond or act in advance of some presumed stimulus to act

    Hmm, a bit like “pre-emptive”? I see your point.

  5. 5  dsquared  January 23, 2009, 7:15 pm 

    If two things are ‘inter-related’, are they not also related?

    Yes, but the converse doesn’t apply for groups larger than two – three things can be (pairwise) related, but not interrelated.

  6. 6  sw  January 23, 2009, 7:18 pm 

    Yes, but the converse doesn’t apply for groups larger than two – three things can be (pairwise) related, but not interrelated.

    What about a love triangle?

  7. 7  dsquared  January 23, 2009, 10:27 pm 

    It’s an odd love triangle in which every member loves every other member

  8. 8  sw  January 24, 2009, 12:07 am 

    Not so much odd as bizarre.

  9. 9  Steven  January 24, 2009, 12:32 am 

    Perhaps the members of a love triangle consisting of father, daughter, and daughter’s paternal uncle are interrelated, while the members of a love triangle consisting of father, daughter, and daughter’s maternal uncle are only related?

  10. 10  john c. halasz  January 25, 2009, 1:51 am 

    Though “proactive” is the sort of word readily subject to canting abuse, particularly in business-speak,- (and is misused in the citation above)-, sw @2 gets it about right and the word does have effective legitimate uses. It concerns not just acting, but doing so in ways that anticipate future consequences and difficulties for one’s chosen course/project. So, e.g., when Goldman Sachs shorted the very toxic structured securities it had been producing ahead of the down-turn/crash in the market for such trash, it was being “proactive”. (It’s different from “preemptive”, since it doesn’t block or obviate the acts/events of others, but rather just takes them into account as likely premises for further actions). As such, “proactive” is not redundant to plain old “active”, but specifically contrasts with “reactive”. Which, of course, is not to say that one can not be proactively reactionary.

  11. 11  belle le triste  January 25, 2009, 11:44 am 

    yes, as john h says, it’s a counter to “reactive” — it’s about creating the news and making the agenda rather than just operating within the world-as-made-by-others

    pre-emptive has a sense of knowing or guessing what someone else’s project is, and heading it off at the pass: pro-active is about pre-empting the rest of the world’s passivity in some specified territory

  12. 12  roger migently  January 26, 2009, 11:32 am 

    “Proactive” is soo 20th Century. It no longer has the grunt. Ever since the “crunch” it has been necessary to be “ahead of the curve” as any Prime Minister, Chancellor, or Finance Minister will tell you they (decisively and gloriously) are.

  13. 13  Freshly Squeezed Cynic  January 27, 2009, 11:07 am 

    But what, dear readers, does the horrible term “proactive” actually add to the sense of, um, “active”?

    About £65,000 p/a plus bonuses.

  14. 14  Joseph Ellis  January 28, 2009, 12:05 am 

    Proactive is a neologism. It’s current use in the english language was not its intended meaning. One can either be active or reactive, plain and simple.

    Also, as active is the adjective derivative of the verb “act”, the word proactive would be the adjective derivative of the verb “proact.” As far as I know, such a word does not exist.

    One cannot simply throw a prefix on a word and make a new word, otherwise “irregardless” would be proper english.

  15. 15  Joseph Ellis  January 28, 2009, 12:06 am 

    Pardon my bad english. It’s current use in the english language is not what the original coiner of the term intended it to be.

  16. 16  Steven  January 28, 2009, 12:13 am 

    To every proaction there is an equal and opposite reaction.

  17. 17  sw  January 28, 2009, 3:27 pm 

    Joseph Ellis @ 14.

    Proactive is a neologism.

    “Neologism” was once a neologism.

    It’s current use in the english language is not what the original coiner of the term intended it to be.

    Perhaps Steven Poole might have something to say about a neologism, the importance of the original coiner’s intent, and subsequent revisions to its meanings, using “unspeak” as an example?

    I don’t want to stand as a great defender of “proactive” – indeed, I don’t want to stand as a great defender of anything or anybody other than Morrissey – but I feel that this word has endured enough, and ought to be allowed to continue its grunt work in the business lexicon, humbled, slighlty ashamed, but nevertheless at work.

  18. 18  ejh  January 28, 2009, 4:17 pm 

    Pardon my bad english. It’s current use in the english language is not what the original coiner of the term intended it to be.

    Its.

  19. 19  Steven  January 28, 2009, 4:37 pm 

    Perhaps Steven Poole might have something to say about a neologism, the importance of the original coiner’s intent, and subsequent revisions to its meanings, using “unspeak” as an example?

    That sounds horrifyingly like an exam question. (Were I forced at sabre-point to take the exam, I would probably begin by attacking the question, noting that “unspeak” isn’t a neologism per se.)

    When your comment showed up in the comments feed, the ad at the bottom read:

    The Manager’s Guide To
    BECOMING GREAT
    It takes more than a job title to become a leader.

    I do fear that part of a manager’s becoming great is being proactive.

  20. 20  sw  January 28, 2009, 5:53 pm 

    That sounds horrifyingly like an exam question. (Were I forced at sabre-point to take the exam, I would probably begin by attacking the question, noting that “unspeak” isn’t a neologism per se.)

    I was hoping you would answer within two hours – a grade would be forthcoming.

    My point is that “unspeak” was at some point a neologism (I like that you say it isn’t a neologism “per se” – if I had more time I would dwell on that) and that you have claimed this word and used it as a pick for mining a rich vein of political coal. To my ear, your use of the word was initially as unwieldy and contrived as “proactive” – but, chapeau, you have made it do important work.

  21. 21  Steven  January 28, 2009, 7:07 pm 

    Well, it was an extant word for which I proposed new employment as a different part of speech, with a new sense. So there was some kind of neologistic — or, may we say, neosemantic — intention there, but it was not a neologism per se.

    I am happy, though, that it caused you eventually to doff that baseball cap emblazoned with a lurid and badly-stitched effigy of Morrissey.

    To answer the rest of the exam: as long as a neologism isn’t widely taken up, I guess the “coiner’s intent”, ie the proposer’s definition, remains of primary importance as the first point of reference for what it means. If a word does pass into general usage, then the coiner does not retain special authority over it, as far as I can see.

  22. 22  sw  January 28, 2009, 8:19 pm 

    I am happy, though, that it caused you eventually to doff that baseball cap emblazoned with a lurid and badly-stitched effigy of Morrissey.

    Thus bearing for the world the bald patch I had kept hidden for the past three years.

    To answer the rest of the exam: as long as a neologism isn’t widely taken up, I guess the “coiner’s intent”, ie the proposer’s definition, remains of primary importance as the first point of reference for what it means. If a word does pass into general usage, then the coiner does not retain special authority over it, as far as I can see.

    I would invite the rest of the Unspeak Community to join me in moving beyond, or exceeding, the “primary importance” of that “first point of reference” in the non-neologism that is “unspeak” to reject Steven’s “special authority”, which is no longer paramount given the word’s passage into general usage, to re-define “unspeak” as the “grunts and groans and cries that are emitted during lovemaking”. I have long felt that the “grunts and groans and cries that are emitted during lovemaking”, whether alone or with others, are a rejection of the human capacity to speak, not as a regression into the pre-verbal but as a forward thrust into the post-verbal, whose segue is characterized by violent claims to an originary language, “speak” itself (e.g., “oh God!” and “deeper!”). It is time that there was one word for “the grunts and groans and cries that are emitted during lovemaking”; that time is now, that word is “unspeak.”

  23. 23  Steven  January 28, 2009, 9:18 pm 

    Respect my authoritaaaah.

  24. 24  john c. halasz  January 29, 2009, 3:37 am 

    Obviously, what is required here is a proactive regulator of verbal usage,- (and everything else down the foundational chain of turtles)!

  25. 25  roger migently  January 31, 2009, 6:34 am 

    I confess that I have never edited my own Wikipedia article so as to make myself look more important and central to the critical intellectual debates of our time, etc. Do you think I should?

    Of course you ought. The world is being denied Important Information. (Not to mention that you are being described as a “stub”. What insolence!)

    For example, there is no mention that you are a musician and composer, which is at least as important isn’t it, at least to you, as being a writer on video games long ago – and frankly more of a lasting – not to spin you too much in the Bush direction – “Legacy”.

    But, more to the point, there is absolutely no mention that Steven Poole is the world’s greatest Whitesnake fan ever – clearly:

    April 23, 2008
    Attention: there is a new album by Whitesnake available at Amie St….You may imagine I am making the horns.

  26. 26  Dan G  January 31, 2009, 2:00 pm 

    Where is his music?

  27. 27  Steven  January 31, 2009, 2:11 pm 

    http://stevenpoole.net/music/ and

    http://supremeultimatefist.com

    I wouldn’t say I was the world’s greatest Whitesnake fan ever

  28. 28  Dan G  February 1, 2009, 1:46 pm 

    Holy mother of crap.

  29. 29  Steven  February 2, 2009, 6:21 pm 

    Mmm… thanks?



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