21st: The unholy union of technobabble and marketspeak

Let's get this straight: By Scott Rosenberg. The unholy union of technobabble and marketspeak -- or, how a business came to be called 'the enterprise.'

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

You may think that you work for a company, or a corporation, or a firm. But the world of digital technology has a new word to replace these pre-digital labels. In the computer industry today, no one talks about "business computing" or even "corporate computing"; the preferred phrase is "enterprise computing."

Enterprise! It's a bracing, grandiloquent word. It conjures images of entrepreneurial vigor, exploratory daring and high-stakes financial risk. And it allows every CEO to forget that he's just a guy behind a desk and picture himself instead as Captain Kirk, locking on target and firing the photon torpedoes.

I don't know where the term originated, but over the past couple of years its use has propagated widely, and it's everywhere today -- in the technology-trade press, at industry conferences, in computer-company advertising. Once upon a time, high-tech hucksters would have said that their product was "hot in the corporate market"; today, they'll say "we're strong in the enterprise." ("Market" doesn't even make it into the phrase any more; all "enterprise" seems to require in the way of ancillary verbiage is the definite article.)

Silicon Valley generates new buzzwords almost as quickly as it spits out new microchips. And many of the electronic age's contributions to our language have been genuinely enriching: How could we describe our precarious coexistence with so much fault technology if we didn't have words like "bug," "glitch" and "down-time"?

For years, the liveliest techno-neologisms have been spawned by the digital world's fringe culture of hackers -- by which of course I mean the old-fashioned sense of that term, the hacker as ingenious programmer, rather than the debased latter-day usage, in which hackers have become moronic teens who try to break into corporate (er, "enterprise") networks for yucks. The richness of this language has long been chronicled in the Net-based Jargon Dictionary (also known as the New Hacker's Dictionary, maintained by Eric Raymond at www.jargon.org and available at numerous other sites) as well as in Gareth Branwyn's fine Jargon Watch column in Wired.

Increasingly, though, the words and phrases that Silicon Valley is pumping into our linguistic bloodstream are derived not from the argot of hard-working nerds but rather from the euphemistic double-talk of the industry's suits and marketroids -- those people whose difficult and thankless job is to sell products that rarely work to customers who rarely know how to use them. Where hackerspeak leaned to the informal and the irreverent, the new jargon tends to obscure and obfuscate. Its roots lie not in a lively subculture with its own ethos and camaraderie but in the hollow echoes of a thousand conference-room presentations.

For now, there's no clear boundary between these two feeder streams of the technospeak pool. A term like "drill down" -- derived from the database universe, where a programmer will pursue relevant information by boring down through hierarchical information, level by level -- comes to light among the nerds and migrates into the palaver of businesspeople. Meanwhile, the phrase "sweet spot" -- originating in the worlds of tennis and golf, wherein many marketroids while away their leisure time -- begins to turn up in more technical discussions (like Steve Jobs' recent MacWorld keynote address, which declared that "The PowerPC chip is really hitting the sweet spot of its life cycle").

English is a vast and venerable melting pot of a language; it readily and willingly absorbs the influx of novel words and phrases from each cultural ingredient that gets tossed in. And computer users have embellished the language with a welcome sense of play. One can only smile when "Take that offline!" becomes a comprehensible joke -- even to people who think time-sharing is something you do with a condo on Maui.

But digital-age diction will be cursed by future generations if we allow too much "new-paradigm" marketing lingo to represent computer culture in our conversation. One easy step we can all take right now: Banish "the enterprise" from our everyday lexicons. Is it so hard to call a business a business?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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