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Right Speech in Systems Design

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This column discusses the correspondence between the wisdom tradition of the Buddha Dharma, specifically the principles of Buddha Dharma called “the eightfold noble path”, and methods of technology development commonly used in systems- and software engineering.

After the right view and the right aspiration, we will now have a look at the right speech (samma vaca) which is one of the five main precepts for ethical conduct.

Speech can be very powerful as it is capable of shaping reality and the world around us. Some scriptures even say that sound is the origin of creation*. Speech, both in spoken and written form, and expressed using language as a medium, can be considered as a portion of this creative power endowed to individuals. Understanding the creative potential of speech is beneficial if we want to learn how to use it constructively to pave the way to happiness for ourselves and others.

The Buddha also taught the importance of right speech. We, for instance, can find the following in different sutras:

Do not engage in the many forms of pointless talking—of kings, criminals, politicians, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes, beds, flowers, perfumes, relatives, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, countries, women, heroes.  They talk on the street and by the well.  They talk about days gone by, rambling chitchat, and speculation, about everything on land and in the sea.  They are always talking about this and that.  (Saccasamyutta, 10)

Words have weighed down all that there is.  Nothing extends its rule further than that of words.  Words are the one thing that has everything under its control.  (Devatasamyutta, 61)

Abstinence from false speech. Abstinence from divisive speech.  Abstinence from harsh speech.  Abstinence from idle chatter. (Maggasamyutta, 8)

(quotes from Sutra and Gospel)

These principles can be summarized as truthfulness—asserting what is false is a distortion of reality and happens generally because of ignorance of the truth. Since truth itself is transcendental in the sense that it depends on context, circumstances, interpretation and many other factors, it is very easy to mistakeand constructiveness—using words to promote positive thoughts and behaviors.

Right speech is about abstaining from lying, from divisive and harsh speech, as well as discourse that may cause harm. In essence, it is about using speech mindfully and with awareness of its powers and purpose.

The right speech can be summarized as (being):

  • • true,  
  • • timely and appropriate,
  • • kind and encouraging,
  • • soft and gentle,
  • • delights the mind,
  • • pleasant to the listener, and makes the listener happy,
  • • wholesomely enters into people’s hearts,
  • • elegant and refined,
  • • agreeable to most people,
  • • gladdens most people,
  • • brings joy to body and mind,
  • • thoughtful and examined,
  • • meaningful,
  • • lawful, 
  • • accords with the Way-principle,
  • • skillfully taming and regulating,
  • • reckoned and measured according to the time and is decisive.

Mantra (from the Sanskrit man—mindand travehicle or instrument—; a tool to transport the mind from a state of activity to one of stillness and silence), recitation, and chanting are said to be the quintessence of right speech. They keep mind and speech engaged and focused when both are generally prone to wander off course. Interestingly, science has started investigating the impact of right speech, with research pointing that persistent lying may deactivate parts of the brain.**

The field of study that defines speech in technology lies somewhere between linguistics (semiotic and semantics) and logic. The term “logic” is derived  from the Greek word logos, and is generally described as the study of the principles of correct reasoning. Correct reasoning corresponds to strict principles of validity and uses symbols and techniques to determine the form of a valid deductive argument and/or the course of action suggested by, or following as a necessary consequence of, the argument (premise-consequence constructs).  

In technology development, logic is understood as the set of principles underlying the arrangement of elements in a computer or electronic device so as to perform a specific task. To ensure correct system logic, which is a requirement for the system to function correctly, it is necessary to ensure an accurate knowledge representation, which is achieved by using “right language”.  

Glossaries, controlled vocabularies,  taxonomies, and ontologies are knowledge representation mechanisms intended to support ‘right speech’ in systems design. Although they are intended primarily to achieve desired behaviors and outcomes, they can also be used to guide and constrain system function.

Information technology functions by way of grammars—computer programs and the internet for example, which run every aspect of the modern world, are written using programming languages that are nothing but ‘functional logic’ expressed using a syntax. In this context, ‘right speech’ can be understood as writing good code ***.

The notion of right speech in the Dharma can be said to correspond to some of the mechanisms used in system design to ensure systems integrity—i.e. that the system performs the intended functions— and systems accuracy—that the intended functions are performed correctly.

In essence, it is using the appropriate terminology in an appropriate context to convey an appropriate message or enable a corresponding function. In our times, when technology is misused in all sorts of ways, ensuring that systems embrace right speech may be advisable.

Examples of right speech in information technology are;  accuracy—using the right words—, fact checking-verifiability—making sure that the assertions are true—, using reference and citations/provenance, conciseness/synthesis, relevance, and finally, some of the principles of information and data quality may also fall under ‘right speech’.

Dharma and technology development, otherwise considered distant and unrelated disciplines, have much in common. Both can be used to understand the world and to shape it. By understanding their correspondence, we can use technology to leverage wisdom. We can then engineer intelligent systems to support life and happiness, minimizing the risk that the technology becomes destructive. At the same time, wisdom traditions can benefit from the pervasiveness and ubiquity of new technologies, and utilize them as media to be disseminated and upheld.

* see: Sound, the origin of creation (KRSNA World)
** see:  Garrett, Neil,  Lazzaro, Stephanie C,  Ariely, Dan  & Tali Sharot. 2016.  “The brain adapts to dishonesty.” Nature Neuroscience. 19: 1727–1732
*** see: Top 9 qualities of clean code (Goyello)

See more:

Ontology, Metadata, and Semiotics (John Sowa Website)
Right speech in the Buddhist dictionary (San Francisco State University)
Samma vaca / Right speech (Sutra and Gospel)
The Multiple Dimensions of Information Quality (Muhlenberg College)
Naumann, Felix & Rolker, Claudia. 2005. “Assessment Methods for Information Quality Criteria
Right Speech Reconsidered (Tricycle)

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