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WTF are techies saying? A linguistic guide for the aspiring tech hustler

The Guardian // 25th June 2016
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “WTF are techies saying? A linguistic guide for the aspiring tech hustler” was written by Lucy Wark in Chicago, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th June 2016 12.00 UTC

It’s as common as the hoodies and the Soylent: Silicon Valley loves its jargon while simultaneously groaning over the weight of its pretense. However, this “pain point” is also an opportunity for enterprising wordsmiths.

In the Valley, speaking fluent cutting-edge startup is the bare minimum required to inspire confidence. Being ahead of the jargon curve can bring great social and financial rewards. It may even be confused with true innovation.

Let’s imagine a conversation between cofounders of a startup – called DoubleNewSpeak, maybe – as they launch a Minimum Viable Vocabulary. If the product is sticky, they will soon be considered visionaries and showered with venture capital – at which point they will scale like crazy. In two years, everyone will be speaking this new language, as they shall devote their energies to overseeing the construction of an enormous Ikea-style ball pit in their open-plan office.

Twenty full minutes of ideating and six rigorous minutes of beta testing later, here’s what they come up with, a linguistic guide for the aspiring tech hustler:

• Evangelist? Bah! Your “head of marketing” should be a “product demagogue”. We’re not conveying enthusiasm here, people – we’re conveying dangerous rabble-rousing obsession with our product. But, you know, in an artisanal way. “Growth hacker” is so 2014 – replace it with “lumberjack”.

• We’re all trapped in a punishing cycle of job title inflation. The future looks grim without a modern-day Scott Volcker to drag us over the coals and tame the beast (shout-out to all those 1970s monetary policy fans out there). So your former “digital prophet” really needs a promotion to “high sparrow of the worshipful B2B CRM space”. Your “thought leader” should probably just start borrowing directly from Kim Jong-il. Acceptable forms of address include: Mastermind of the Revolution, Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Commander and Guiding Star of the 21st Century.

• Continue that military aesthetic with a cheeky “blitzkrieg” – no one does “sprints” anymore. But definitely avoid “bootstrap” – given the Valley’s woman problem, these days it’s “garter” or bust. Or “bustier”, I suppose.

• “Layoff” is old-fashioned. Why not call it a “freedom cull”? Or a “quarter quell”? Perhaps even a “staff detox”?

• “Pivot” is out, “pirouette” is in – it sounds almost like I planned it.

• As for adjectives – “sticky” can be “viscous”, “frothy” is either “rabid” or “lightly sparkling”, and “agile” is being replaced with “spry”, “limber” or “lithe”.

• By the way, this “paradigm shift” should be referred to as a “thought schism”.

Let’s double-click on the phenomenon of tech jargon (a year ago, we’d be drilling down, and two years ago, we’d be going granular). Jargon is interesting because it’s not inherently bad. It’s an efficient form of communication, initially – but when new words don’t actually describe a novel concept, they tend to have less benign purposes.

In the tech industry, fresh buzzwords are often a shortcut, a way to sell a less-than-impressive reality, gain unearned credibility and join an in-group. Early adopters are advantaged and holdouts exposed to increasingly high costs.

In fact, the economics of platforms and luxury goods collide in the jargon economy. Owning a dominant platform allows you to capture value from users’ activity. If your language becomes popular, it brings industry credibility and allows you to capitalise on the reputational boost. But your terminology can become overused and drained of meaning – hello, “disruptive innovation”. If utility is based partly on rarity and novelty, like a Chanel bag, this tips the delicate balance; mass adoption is both the goal and the beginning of the end.

Jargon is not just a tech problem, but a classic strategy. Management consultants have been attempting to legitimize themselves with superfluous systematised vocabularies for decades. And despite its protestations, tech is not that different from other sectors; it is distinguished mainly by the scale of people’s ambitions and the super-profits made possible by infinitely reproducible solutions (software).

Ironically, in trying to avoid corporate America’s deadening euphemistic vocabulary, Silicon Valley may have created a parlance equally stripped of meaning.

Its tone also reflects its American origins; if, say, Denmark had been the epicentre of the technological renaissance, tech would feel very different. Silicon Valley’s jargon draws on manifest destiny, refusing to admit failure outside a narrative of eventual success. It tends toward hype and hyperbole, mixed with the saccharine dead-on-arrival enthusiasm of American consumer service. With its talk of
“rockstars” and “gurus”, it buys into that libertarian worship of the individual which so often teeters into celebrating arrogance.

It feels only fitting to end a whine about America with a grumpy Englishman – but unfortunately, Orwell is over-quoted on the evils of doublespeak. However, Thomas Paine said it well in The Age of Reason:

“All this is nothing better than the jargon of a conjuror, who picks up phrases he does not understand to confound the credulous people who come to have their fortune told. Priests and conjurors are of the same trade.”

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