21st: A turnkey solution in every pot


Scott Rosenberg
February 6, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

When I wrote last week about "the unholy union of technobabble and marketspeak," I figured that my distaste for "enterprise computing" and other currently popular buzzwords of technology marketing would be shared by some portion of 21st readers. I didn't realize I was tapping into a Vesuvius of outrage. If my in box is any indication, the state of the language we use to describe technology is a disaster area -- one in which we are all living and working.

Herewith, based on your e-mail, a survey of some of the damage:

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No one is terribly happy with the way adjectives like "robust" and "scalable" have migrated from their specific technical meanings ("robust" = will not crash as often as you expect; "scalable" = grows with your business without crashing as often as you expect) to more generic usages in ad copy.

The term "turnkey" also rouses considerable wrath. The word, which began life in the real-estate world, describes a product delivered in a finished and ready-to-use state, so that all the customer needs to do is turn the key. In most industries, of course, turnkey is the norm: You'd be pretty mad at an auto dealer who sold you a new car that did not meet this minimal spec. But in the computer industry, such an achievement is far from routine, and companies selling products crow when they have accomplished it -- sometimes even when they haven't.

There's a reservoir of distaste for the rampant overuse of "paradigm." This word first came into widespread consciousness as a result of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" -- which defined it as "a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the way a community organizes itself." Kuhn argued that science moves forward not via a slow, steady accretion of knowledge but by sudden "paradigm shifts" that alter the dominant "constellation" of thought by which generations of scientists conduct their work. Today, of course, every two-bit software developer flogging a product declares that it "introduces a whole new paradigm!"

Several readers cited the misuse of "interface" as a verb ("'Interact' was bad enough in the '80s, 'communicate' in the '70s -- whatever happened to 'talk'?"). Some pointed out the proliferation of fuzzy synonyms for "seller" (like "vendor" and "provider"). "Mission-critical" irks people when it's used outside of NASA. And it seems that the word "convergence" has found one too many lives for itself, as it hops from one industry to another without ever quite clarifying just what pair of things is converging.

But the No. 1 peeve out there is distress at what has happened to the word "solution" in its migration from the world of everyday English to that of high-tech marketing. Hardware and software companies now routinely describe what they sell -- what we used to call their products -- as "solutions." It's a jargon tactic aimed at subliminally conveying the notion that the particular computer or piece of software won't add to your problems but will instead solve them.

This, of course, is what every busy executive wants to hear. The word harks back to that old slogan, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem," while conveniently sidestepping the need to tell you precisely what a product is. As one reader wrote, "If I wanted someone to provide solutions, I'd talk to a chemical company."

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My own criteria for deciding whether to embrace or eschew a particular new twist of the language are simple: If it augments our expressive possibilities, allowing us to draw finer distinctions or adding new colors to our verbal palette, then a new word or expression is worth holding onto; if it blurs meanings and erases distinctions, then get out the red pens.

For instance, a couple of readers mentioned "the out-of-box experience" as a bit of detestable marketspeak, but I must differ. The phrase describes what happens when a consumer brings a product home and tries to start it up (if you opened your new laptop to find its screen smashed, you've had a lousy out-of-box experience). With its sardonic nod to the New Age (by way of the "out-of-body experience"), it's a funny little buzz phrase, and no existing words will quite substitute.

On this ground, several of you took me to task for fulminating against "enterprise computing," arguing that the word is not synonymous with "business" or "corporate" but rather describes any large-scale public or private organization with demanding computing needs (governments and hospitals as well as companies). That's indeed a useful distinction, but I'm afraid it's one that has eroded, perhaps past repair.

If the collective wisdom of my correspondents is to be trusted, "enterprise computing" originated roughly two decades ago at IBM, which chose "enterprise" as an inclusive term to describe the customers for its biggest systems. Then it mutated into an all-purpose descriptive for any big operation that needs to fuse disparate kinds of computer systems into a working whole. Finally it arrived at its present, debased meaning in the trade press and technology ads, where it seems to mean anything from "databases you can depend on" to "next-generation PCs we want you to replace your minicomputers with" to "so big and powerful you must have it."

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With all these buzzwords now before us, we have all we need to describe the ultimate technology product for 1998. It's a new-paradigm turnkey solution for your mission-critical enterprise -- and we'll ship it just as soon as we're sure it's robust and scalable enough.


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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