Since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Silicon Valley’s “empathy vacuum” has come under fire. Critics of the technology industry’s questionable ethics cite the unwieldy influence of tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google in civil society–particularly their negligence to control the proliferation of fake news across their services–as a part of Silicon Valley’s failure to consider the societal impact of these technologies beyond statistical concepts of ‘engagements’ and ‘growth,’ metrics used by the tech industry to assess its reach. The election of Donald Trump provoked feelings to many of betrayal and doubt directed towards notions of civil progress that was supposedly evidenced by rapid technological development, and these sentiments encouraged (or, to some, verified) skepticism towards Silicon Valley’s “technological wizardry” and analysis of its more harmful consequences.
Some of these critics call into question the ethics of the tech industry’s eagerness to ‘disrupt,’ the ramifications of which have disturbed the lives of many. From Uber to AirBnB to Otto, tech companies regularly seek to ‘innovate’ industries by promoting increased ‘sustainability’ and ‘productivity.’ While these companies, their investors and their audiences see these efforts as herculean effort to push society forward, their effects actually impact millions of workers outside the tech bubble negatively. Silicon Valley’s lexicon of buzzwords is a manifestation of the empathy gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the nation; its vocabulary, once removed of its chrome gloss, can serve as a lens into the sometimes hubristic philosophy of its endeavors. The language of the tech industry, and entrepreneurial businesses in general, centered around buzzwords, designed to be provocative at first and then descriptive, greatly contributes to the empathy gap by obscuring the consequences of their actions and inflating their achievements.
Buzzwords are nothing new. Office speak has been a staple of professional life and culture since at least the beginning of the 20th century, following the Second Industrial Revolution when industrialists promulgated values of mechanistic productivity to promote efficiency among factory workers. As American industry consolidated after World War II into larger conglomerates and the workplace came to dominate American life on par with people’s domestic spheres, business executives started to ponder, according to Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana, “As a manager, how can I maximize profits by creating a certain emotional atmosphere at my company?” They found that vocabulary, particularly language that provokes specific values, either directly associated with management or designed to influence employees’ behavior and outlook on projects, molds industries and the lives of those impacted by them.
Focusing on the scope of buzzwords emerging from Silicon Valley, the trademark lexicon of the tech industry reveals a shift in the scale of entrepreneurship and its goals. As encapsulated in Mark Zuckerberg’s maxim “Move fast and break things,” ‘disruption’ is at the core of startup culture – the quest to create technologies that will single-handedly revolutionize whole industries, potentially lifestyles. But what does that entail? The word lends itself to thoughts about the underdog hero in the fight against the status quo, notions of The Little Engine That Could or David and Goliath. It is this ideology of valor and triumph that spurs the rapid technological development that has defined modern society in the last several years, and yet it also serves as the tech industry’s blinders that are responsible for the empathy gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.
Whereas office speak of the 1980s and 1990s described in-house management practices such as ‘task cycle,’ ‘core competency,’ and ‘run it up the flagpole,’ currently popular buzzwords are no longer designed to be shorthand terms for actual business practices. Instead, the terminology of Silicon Valley is much more ethereal. Esoteric code phrases have been replaced by single, commonplace words with the intent to be arousing. Rather than describing strategies, these buzzwords represent philosophies. Terms we’re all familiar with such as ‘innovation,’ ‘creative,’ ‘vision,’ and ‘synergy’ take on a whole new ethos as pillars of a new age of industry. This new set of jargon is grandiose in ambition but difficult to more precisely define. While something like creativity is worthwhile and estimable, placing such a concept at the front of an enterprise – without further direction or focus, but instead, expectations that the weight the word carries on its own be the guiding principle of employees’ behavior – is at least vague, if not irresponsible.
When the goal of a business is condensed into one of these larger-than-life themes, buzzwords shroud a more thorough assessment of consequences. ‘Innovation,’ a favorite among startups, exemplifies the duality of buzzwords. From aspiring entrepreneurs to mighty business executives, innovation has been paraded as the goal all new technologies and services should aspire to accomplish. The phenomenon of the meteoric rise of “Uber for X” companies demonstrates how determined new businesses are to be innovative by coming up with ways to radically transform their industry of choice – ironically, by copying the business model of another company.
However, the faults of capital “I” innovation don’t stop there. Innovation as we understand it today, a more appealing and immediately relatable rebranding of creative destruction, frequently involves more elimination than invention. From automated trucking to Amazon’s cashier-less grocery stores, the only innovation in these enterprises is the introduction of technology to remove the need for certain formerly established practices, namely human interaction. While it’s argued that efficiency is increased in these developments, it is precisely this emphasis on maximizing productivity without considering the tradeoffs that is responsible for Silicon Valley’s empathy vacuum. The rhetoric of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ neatly covers up the recklessness of this methodology.
Alternatively, buzzwords with genuine significance and urgency that fail to be applied with deserving diligence can be just as harmful. The insincere way ‘diversity’ has been interpreted among companies has reduced a pressing issue to corporate-diluted meaninglessness. In the same manner in which other buzzwords are handled, the mere presence of ‘diversity’ as a concept is expected to carry the brunt of its application beyond its mention in a company memo. As Anna Holmes points out in her New York Times essay on “the recent ubiquity of the word ‘diversity,’” “It has become both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.” The nature of buzzwords leaves them open to ambiguity due to an incompatibility between the scale of the problem and the dependence on a single term to contain that very problem. When coming up with ways to solve ethical problems in a company, such as a lack of diversity, buzzwords can become obstacles despite their best intentions. Merely invoking the importance of representation in a corporate context without elaborating on how to make it a reality, diversity as a buzzword hinders businesses from being actually effective and active in seeking solutions.
With the increase in skepticism towards Silicon Valley, it’s worthwhile to investigate how the language of the tech industry contributes to its aloofness. When the displacement of millions of workers being replaced by technology is described heroically as innovation, and when issues of diversity hardly progress beyond a verbal diagnosis, buzzwords prevent us from being able to see these problems before they happen. Rather, we should be more deliberate when describing what we want to accomplish, especially as the rate of technological development accelerates.