Saturday, January 26, 2008

A metaphorical moment

Malcolm's attention was caught by an expression, from this morning's BBC Radio Today programme.


It was used (round about 8.15 am) by John Humphrys in describing Britain's financial regulation, and how matters had altered from the days of the Old Boys' network to modern discrete regulatory authorities. For once Humphrys was on his best behaviour, as he interviewed John McFall about the Commons Treasury Committee' report on Northern Rock. McFall (right) was allowed to answer and expand on points without the usual interruptions.

Then, said Humphrys, the Bank of England kept its finger on the pulse of the financial world because the gentlemen who ran the system lunched together, and matters could be discussed over a post-prandial cigar. Today, the different organisations (the "tripartite arrangement" of the Bank, the FSA and the Treasury) existed separately -- and one could detect a wince in his voice -- "what's that awful jargon they use? everyone's in silos."

Malcolm found himself caught by the term. He remembered the word (and the product "silage") creeping into his consciousness in agricultural Norfolk in the 1950s. He now sees that it is a term with a longer tradition.

Random House believe the word's origin to be:
1825–35; Sp: place for storing grain, hay, etc., orig. subterranean; ulterior orig. uncert.
The Online Etymological Dictionary, presumably borrowing from this, and with a straight lift from the Oxford English Dictionary, declares:
1835, from Sp. silo, from L. sirum (nom. sirus), from Gk. siros "a pit to keep corn in." Or, alternately, the Sp. word is from a pre-Roman Iberian language word represented by Basque zilo, zulo "dugout, cave or shelter for keeping grain." Meaning "underground housing and launch tube for a guided missile" is attested from 1958.
Webster's Dictionary states the word:
was first used in popular English literature: sometime before 1596.
In computerese, "silo" came to mean an information store, perhaps derived from the can-of-beans image used in flow-charts.

Despite Humphrys' distaste, the metaphor has stong symbolism. In Malcolm's mind it is the distant view as he is driving into London from Stansted Airport. Canary Wharf, the omphalos of modern high-rise financial institutions, appears in the distance. The vertical scale is made by pylons, distant housing blocks, and the farms' silos.

It reminds Malcolm how modern systems work: people and data are treated as something to be left in safe high-rise storage, in the hope that something useful ferments.

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