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Economy

Oct 27, 2015

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Back in 2003, the author and political speechwriter Don Watson released a book so very well-regarded, not even Paul Keating had a rotten thing to say. The work Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language did not so much champion Plain English as it wept for the murder of words by business administrators. The language of management, he wrote, had also become the language of everyday speech, and everyone, from footballers to pop stars, was “moving forward” and “resolving issues” and permitting the slow suicide of meaning through an overuse of passive voice.

It’s a fun book whose gags are beloved by pedants but whose central argument remains overlooked by many speakers who continue to bang on in management-ese. The worst of Harvard’s textbooks still fuel the worst public and even private communications, and many of us are inclined to “comply”, “implement” and “solutionise”. Once we begin to recognise it, the wilfully vague language of bureaucrats is funny when we hear it, for example, from local councils where “bin night” is an “allocated waste management date” and our bin is no longer a bin but an “environmental stakeholder”. This funny language, however, becomes distressing when we read it as used by the UN whose new Strategic Development Goals (SDGs) “ensure availability”, “promote access” and “empower”.

Surely, the route to the eradication of poverty cannot be sped, sorry, “enhanced” by the mild language of liberal bureaucrats. But this, as Watson says, is kind of the point. The more meaningless your goals and the fuzzier your “key performance indicators”, the more likely you are to meet them. The SDGs are even more imprecise than their preceding Millennium Development Goals. Just why the UN feels the need to address the world’s starving, brutalised and stateless as though they are employees in the lunchroom at Target is kind of a mystery. Even if the SDGs fail to “enhance”, “empower” and “include” the disenfranchised, the UN gets to fudge its “desired outcomes” in any case. The monopoly provider for data on global poverty, The World Bank, changes its measure of poverty — or should that be “regrettable under-provision of empowering calories to key intestinal stakeholders”? — so frequently, that poverty will soon disappear from official spreadsheets. Not actually, of course, from billions of lives.

If Watson retains his interest or anger in the matter of diminished meaning, he would, I believe, do well to update Death Sentence. A decade ago, he was right to locate Harvard as the origin of spoken bullshit. Now, the bullshit has moved west and grows from Silicon Valley.

The dull, enduring language of local councils, and of the UN, has lost much of its power to pacify us now that many of us “stakeholders” see it as the crap that it is. At the point that we became bored by board meeting-speak, the apparently adrenalised language of tech business began to take its place.

TechCrunch is the rubbish tip of meaning and nowhere can we smell the garbage more strongly than on the breath of Wyatt Roy. Earlier this month, the New Bullshit linguist hosted a “Hackathon” to “accelerate” the “innovation ecosystem” for whose growth he is, apparently, responsible. From what we can glean from reports, a “Hackathon” is another term for “hasty policy discussion”, although Roy himself says that it’s a “disruption” of tradition.

Of course, entrepreneurial types ate up this Cupertino rot with a spoon and spewed it back as though Roy’s unchecked individualism was not, as it is, just the worst of John Locke on Red Bull but a new and democratic place for “human crucibles of creativity”.

WTF, as they might ask in the Googleplex. Racing around in a retro Atari T-shirt and looking cheeky and young does not turn neoliberalism, a poison school of thought now well into midlife, into teen freedom. Roy can say, and can perhaps even believe, that the transformation of Super into venture capital is not, in fact, theft but a glorious moment of “unlocking”. He can call the protection of concentrated private wealth accumulation a “hack” and those high on the fizz of energy drinks can believe, as they will, that this is not just Ayn Rand tarted up in an Apple Watch. But, at some point or another, the language of “innovation” will be identified by some Millennials as a reeking veil over the same meaning Boomers had sold to them as “key performance indicators”.

This crap is just capital in new duds.

Last week at Senate estimates, Penny Wong gave voice, in my view, to an entirely justified impatience with the New Bullshit. Julie Bishop, who has been very successful in charming youth outlets like BuzzFeed with her use of emoji, was asked by Wong to explain why she had publicly depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin as a red-faced character. This is not an unreasonable question to ask of a Foreign Minister who is urging her nation to join Russian forces in bombing the shit out of Syria and reminding us all of the pressures of realpolitik. However, young users of social media did not concur. Bishop was celebrated and just about anything that the truly labourist politicians of the Labor Party do to remind their young constituents that a “sharing economy” is not, by definition, an equal economy is barely heard.

Following the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, organisations who have long sought to protect the hard-won rights of workers are seen by younger people as “mainstream” or “traditional” and giddy young twits like Roy are the “hacked” future. Bishop expresses her policy in the wink of an emoji and the little idiots eat it up with a spoon as they speed away to an “accelerated” future in an uber. You can call the ancient bullshit of Smith, Locke and Ricardo a “hack” until you’re blue (or red) in the face. This doesn’t make the ideology of personal striving any newer than it was in the 17th century when young men like Locke championed inequality, albeit without the coy language of business or the forceful language of the “hack”.

This is a time for Don Watson, or one of his kids, to crack open the language of “sharing” and of “open source” and innovation and show us the broken lie inside. But, what would I know, right? I’m just an “old media” “gatekeeper” who seeks in vain to delay a “hackable” future whose key, apparently, is deregulation and the continued trade of labour rights and social assets for a voucher at Airbnb.

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44 comments

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44 thoughts on “Check yo’self before you tech yo’self: Wyatt Roy and the new language of bullshit

  1. Chris Hartwell

    It would have been hilarious if Roy had hosted an actual hackathon – Snowden would have several new housemates before the end of the week.

  2. klewso

    “The Bilky Mar Kid”

  3. Dogs breakfast

    All power to you on this rampage Helen.

    It won’t be too long now until the word ‘innovation’ has lost all meaning, as has happened to the word ‘strategic’.

    Anything you can do to keep me apprised of developments, vis a vis the strategic interface between the establishocracy and the developmental innovation-space centric paradigm would be muchly appreciated.

    Notwithstanding the aboveforementioned.

  4. Blair Martin

    What a perfect summation of the member for Longman “giddy young twit(s)”

  5. Harman

    Don’t forget to unlock and rock your AGILE. But remember to keep it Lean.

  6. Stozonomo

    Good one Helen.
    Brings back memories of playing Buzzword (bullshit) bingo in work meetings.
    Yep we all need to be more agile according to Malcolm. A euphemism for a more deregulated workforce?

  7. Norman Hanscombe

    When it became obvious journalists and even ‘academics’ were having difficulty coping with the subtleties of distinctions among affect and effect (something even mediocre primary school youngsters could handle until the 1960s)society had a problem, didn’t it.
    The almost universal absurd replacement of “affect” with “impact” originally was seen by many genuinely educated people as amusing, for they little realised that it was a language cancer which would rip through all academic disciplines.

  8. Helen Razer

    @Stozonomo I also spent many hours doing my small bit to detonate the tech boom playing BBB!

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    With, of course one would imagine, the approval of Helen de Razer.

  10. Decorum

    I believe that these people all use this site: http://www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html

  11. Helen Razer

    Anyone able to translate from the Original Norman, today?

  12. Sue Darmody

    Thanx Helen. Keep up the good work on the Bullshit-ometer.

  13. Draco Houston

    I’ve been groaning every time I hear politicians talk about this crap.

    I know enough about the tech industry to know what these words actually mean, and knowing that I see all these politicians on the tech bandwagon as Pointy Haired Bosses.

    The word I hate the most is ‘agile’. Agile is a development methodology that favours iteration over long term planning. When business people say it they just mean the company, or the management at least, is small.

    Agile government then means ‘small government with no long term plan’

    I can’t be the only voter under 35 that has had to resocket their eyeballs after they involuntarily rolled right out of their heads listening to the Waffler In Chief

  14. Scott

    I sort of agree.

    Innovation is one of those buzz words that everyone loves, but no one really knows what it means or how to create it.

    I mean, how did Google come about? Apple? PayPal? Amazon? Twitter? Most of the founders met in university, had a dream and got private funding. Not a lot of Wyatt Roy work there.

    Did the government really have any influence in creating these companies? These innovations? Doubt it. Most of it is markets. That is why the US produces these companies that can scale huge. Access to customers.

    Basically the only thing Governments can do is ease visa restrictions to import technology workers, provide tax rebates for R&D and improve universities. Let luck, talent, and the private sector do the rest.

  15. Chris Hartwell

    Small thing all those companies have in common Scott. And the government – or at least the Department of Defence – did create that little common thread.

    You might know what I’m referring to?

  16. Mark Egelstaff

    I think Helen has got this completely back to front.

    It isn’t Wyatt who is using this language – in fact, as she has mentioned in passing, the language is coming out of Silicon Valley. He is, in fact, speaking their language.

    Governments haven’t created the terms hackathons or disruptions. They have been created by the very people creating those entities. A friend of mine, who works for a technology hothouse (yep, another term…) has the job title of Chief Disruptor.

    However, there’s a difference between bureaucratic jargon, designed to hide your true motives, and new language which describes a process for which there isn’t already a descriptor. We already know what a rubbish bin is, so to turn it into an environmental stakeholder is simply a wilful misnomer.

    However, how do you describe a meeting in which tech-heads (a term used to describe people who work in new technology heavy industries) discuss how they can make IT cut through established processes to make life easier? Apart from a meeting in which tech-heads discuss how they can make IT cut through established processes to make life easier? Why wouldn’t you call it a hackathon?

    So yes, it’s jargon. Yes, it sounds wanky. Do I want to job title of Chief Disruptor? No thanks. But that doesn’t mean that it’s designed to hide the true meaning behind it.

  17. Draco Houston

    Rich kids meet in elite universities, somehow find capital, must be The Market what done it.

  18. Draco Houston

    “However, how do you describe a meeting in which tech-heads (a term used to describe people who work in new technology heavy industries) discuss how they can make IT cut through established processes to make life easier? Apart from a meeting in which tech-heads discuss how they can make IT cut through established processes to make life easier? Why wouldn’t you call it a hackathon?

    So yes, it’s jargon. Yes, it sounds wanky. Do I want to job title of Chief Disruptor? No thanks. But that doesn’t mean that it’s designed to hide the true meaning behind it.”

    Your mate is a producer or manager, he’s attending meetings. It really is just wanky jargon.

  19. James O'Neill

    Brilliant Helen, but I fear it’s a losing battle. I think that the BBC program “Yes Minister” is part of the political training manual these days. How to say a lot of words but actually say nothing. Each year a whole new series of buzz words, and our new PM is a master of it, with “agility” “innovation” “adaptability” etc. They sound great (and certainly more lucid that Abbott) but what do they mean in concrete policy terms?

  20. zut alors

    ‘… Ayn Rand tarted up in an Apple Watch.’

    Neat work, Helen.

  21. Helen Razer

    @MMark, you say “It isn’t Wyatt who is using this language”.
    Roy is using this language. It’s in the papers, his press releases and the titles of his “events”.
    I’m not sure what I have got “back to front” in your view.
    It’s common practice for government to borrow the language of business. It’s also pretty common for business to delude itself into thinking that drinks after work are a “beverage facillitated networking interface” or that meetings are a “hackathon”. Because business is up its own date, much of the time, culturally speaking.
    And using the (very often, dick-measuring bloke fest) name of the code hackathon for a business meeting is ridiculous and does obfuscate meaning. It makes the “hack”, which still means a genuine disruption to order despite its current use as something that amounts to “handy hint” or “time saver”, meaningless. A bit like saying “misogyny” when what you actually mean is sexism.
    But my obvious problem here is with government using the language and miming the techniques of the free market. It’s tedious, it’s clumsy and it’s a corruption of public discourse.
    Hackathon has come to mean, for Roy, a bunch of right wing people yelling ideas at each other. Which I am sure the Liberal Party has many other names to describe. It’s not new. Don’t dress it up as rebellious.

  22. Helen Razer

    @Scott Yeah. Those inefficient governments. Noodling around with useless projects like the invention of WiFi.

  23. Jaybuoy

    @HR11 rack off Normie, you and your mates
    I know what your after, but I’ll put you straight
    I’ll smash your back window with a great lump of rock
    So rack off now before I do me Block…

  24. ken svay

    Crikey, is Norman actually older than me? Spiny Norman I call him, only fellow geriatrics will get that.

  25. Laurie Patton

    OK. But let’s not allow youthful exuberance and adherence to slavish techspeak to divert us from the central truth that Australia needs to transition to a digitally enabled future. Balance the over enthusiastic startup hype with appropriate policies to foster innovation. Encourage government to target realistic expectations and support an entrepreneurial culture.

  26. Scott

    We are talking about innovation. Not invention.

    Sure, the U.S. government created a very limited version of the internet; and CSIRO created an efficient form of wifi.

    But it took Microsoft to create msn to commercialise the Internet; and Cisco and Broadcom to commercialise the wifi.

    Private sector..you always need a profit signal.

  27. Draco Houston

    “But it took Microsoft to create msn to commercialise the Internet”

    MSN was launched six (6) years after the first ever commercial ISP

  28. Tigger

    As a great fan of Don Watson’s “Death Sentence”, I’m glad to see this BS again called for what it is – this is cathartic stuff for one who has lost dental enamel every time he’s heard linguistic abominations like “stakeholder”, sorry, “key stakeholder”.
    As Draco has pointed out though, some of their jargon actually started with a legitimate meaning (e.g. “open source” for program source code that is freely available under some kind of public licence), but no matter, once it’s picked up by the bullshitterati and turned into a breathless buzzword-soon-to-be-cliche, real meaning doesn’t matter any more – it just becomes part of the same obfuscating, mind-numbing verbal porridge. As Watson pointed out, and Orwell before him, strip the language of meaning, nuance, soul and clarity, and thought will follow. The bullshitter’s work is done.

  29. Helen Razer

    You always need a profit signal for what?

  30. AR

    I am constantly amazed by the numerous numbers of new innovations these days,always producing products that affect the effectiveness of ..err.. the aforesaid new innovations.
    I guess.

  31. James Scheibner

    There’s a certain irony in Helen Razer’s “critique” of open source on a website that’s in all likelihood largely built on open source software. Kind of like people who say GMOs are evil because they contain “chemicals”.

  32. Graham R

    Thanks Ms Razer. A perennial hate of mine, this language debasement.

    Uber are masters of this: there is no such thing as ride-sharing, just illegal taxi services. But ALL the media refer to it as ride-sharing just as Uber has trained them to do.

    And won’t all their interface transport operatives be dismayed when they find out they have entered a form of unregulated, cost-shifted slavery?

  33. Lord Muck

    No, Helen, we don’t actually need to meet key performance indicators. Instead, it suffices that we are committed to meeting key performance indicators.

  34. Helen Razer

    Jeez @James. To argue that business has clumsily misused “open source” is not, even for a minute, to discredit wordpress or the processes of collaboration (often enacted for WITHOUT THE PROFIT SIGNAL) that lead to better, cheaper operating environments. I run Linux, FFS. I also enjoy a small amount of involvement with digital freedom persons, who are always speaking the language of FLOSS.
    To say that a critique of business language is the same thing as a critique of the origins of that language is like, I don’t know, those people who say that Monsanto is evil because they read it on Twitter.

  35. Jonas tatuhangi

    @Scott “Did the government really have any influence in creating these companies? These innovations? Doubt it.”

    You would be very wrong, the NSA/CIA has long funded Silicon Valley startups and university R&D. Google has a long, long history with the NSA back to its early developments in a university lab. Nafeez Ahmed an award winning journalist did a great investigation into the long tentacles of the US Government into SV.

  36. Jonas tatuhangi

    Also Blackhat and Defcon are “hackathons” though I’m pretty sure if you hosted a similar large event here the AFP would have a field day.

  37. JMNO

    I noticed at Wilson’s Promontory on the weekend, a good old life buoy was now called a ‘rescue device’. Sigh.

  38. Tigger

    @Lord Muck: Very good, but you omitted “going forward”.

  39. Helen Razer

    Yes @lord Muck. Well done. You have met and exceeded our documented expectations in producing quotable snark for all stakeholders.

  40. Bob the builder

    Oh, those young people …

    Is this the day Helen Razer officially turned into an old person?

    (and yes, I agree the language is odious)

  41. Shourov Bhattacharya

    Simple solution – look at what people do, not what they say.

  42. Michele Bottroff

    So true Helen…I just pulled my aging copy of “Death Sentences” from the book shelf, time for another look.

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