Thanks to the power of autism, we have a very precise idea of what ambiguity in natural language is: the number of comprehensible interpretations.
[Natural languages] are fraught with a lot of things unacceptable for providing instructions to a computer. Most important of these unacceptable attributes is ambiguity. Natural language is filled with ambiguity. To infer the meaning of a sentence, a listener is often helped by the tone of voice of the speaker, or at the very least, the context of the sentence.
Off-topic note: when people are waxing legalistic they often affect a monotone and use words that sound like they have a more precise definition (you especially see this whenever clerks and bureaucrats get defensive).
An example of ambiguity in English is the sentence, “Time flies like an arrow.” At least three interpretations are possible, depending on whether (1) one is noticing how fast time passes, (2) one is at a track meet for insects, or (3) one is writing a letter to the Dear Abby of Insectville. In the first case, a simile, one is comparing the speed of time passing to the speed of an arrow that has been released. In the second case, one is telling the timekeeper to do his/her job much like an arrow would. In the third case, one is relating that a particular group of flies (time flies, as opposed to fruit flies) are all in love with the same arrow.
Yale N. Patt and Sanjay J. Patel
Introduction to Computing Systems
Powertalk is the use of ambiguous natural language to extract information about a person based on which meaning they respond to (i.e. which interpretation they choose). Powertalk is a linguistic Rorschach test. Please recall Rao’s Ur-example:
At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.
Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)
David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.
Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?
The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.
Functionally, this is the opposite of Framing. When a melonhead launches a salvo of possible meanings, the point is to see which one the other party targets and shoots down (i.e. which they think is “obviously” the correct interpretation), because this reveals their defensive location (i.e. key emotional and personality traits). For example, I could say “You’re a funny guy, huh?” to provoke a reaction from you. If you take this as provocation to escalate into an argument then I’ve just learned that you’re an insecure Alpha. If you agree and amplify (“Also beautiful”) then I know you have some Game and social grace. And so on.
(I wish I could remember who figured this next bit out so I could give them credit. I remember it was on a Skype call.)
The starchild superpower that I previously compared to collapsing the wave function is a combination of rapid disambiguation (via the ventral stream’s associative horizon) and a pointedly ironic response. If I’d used the “You’re a funny guy, huh?” bit with my starchild back at the strip club, I imagine he would have said something like “And you’re the big guy!” What he’s really saying here is “I see what you did there. You’re using ambiguity to AMOG me and it’s cute that you think that would work. Now I’m David and you’re Goliath lozzlzolzlolzzlz.”
This insight may seem a bit frivolous but in truth the navigation of ambiguity is the essence of 4th-generation culture war, which is decided by which side is better at rhetoric, propaganda, and control of complex information flows. We need to learn to apply this stuff in order to win the shooting war before it starts.