Strategic Argot Discourse (SAD, Very Sad)

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Jargon is, by far, the greatest invention ever to come out of any human mind. No kidding. I love it. Mastering or, better yet, concocting a complex, mind-numbing syntax consisting almost entirely of baffling terminology allows you to convince just about anyone anytime that you are an absolute genius and the ultimate expert in your field, when in fact you haven't got the foggiest of clues as to what the heck you're talking about.

If you stand two people up in front of an audience, one solely a jargon expert and the other a true subject matter expert, the jargon expert will win the crowd over every time. You don't believe me? Read my recent paper, Deconstructing the Turing Machine with AIEL. To quote its abstract, "The refinement of SCSI disks has improved the UNIVAC computer, and current trends suggest that the synthesis of the Turing machine will soon emerge. In this position paper, we validate the evaluation of journaling file systems [13]. AIEL, our new method for robust models, is the solution to all of these issues."

In truth, it's not really my paper. I generated it by going to a Web site, SCIgen, which was mentioned in a Washington Post online article. The site offers a program that you can use to generate random Computer Science research papers that, in addition to impressive-sounding but nonsensical text, also include authoritative-looking but equally ludicrous charts and graphs. The site suggests that, "One useful purpose for such a program is to auto-generate submissions to conferences that you suspect might have very low submission standards."

Of course, no one would ever fall for such an obvious farce, right? Oh no? The program developers sent some of their bogus, randomly generated papers to the organizers of the 9th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI 2005) to be held in Orlando, Florida, on July 10-13, 2005. The conference title was probably the submitter's first clue that the organizers were almost certain to be impressed by jargon. One of the papers was accepted for presentation at the conference. Chalk up another win for jargon over brains.

Full disclosure: The conference organizers did eventually learn of the plot. They then cancelled the presentation and refunded the submitter's registration fee.

Of course, one of the best and most profitable uses of jargon is in what I have to admit is my area of expertise, marketing literature. Consider this sales pitch: "HexaCyberburst500 is an advanced, seven-factor, integrated solution that enables synergistic, collaborative processes to coalesce around a dynamic, comprehensive enterprise cluster core, thereby allowing you to leverage sustainable competitive advantage. Built on an open, fifth-generation, integrated architecture and administered through a seamless, intuitive user interface, HexaCyberburst500 optimizes interoperability, connectivity, and extensibility." I just made that up, and I haven't any idea whatsoever what all of that claptrap means, but, damn, I want one of those!

(My apologies if there really is a product named HexaCyberburst500. If so, I'd like to give a little free advice to the vendor: Do a better job of getting your Web site indexed by Google.)

Obviously, technology-based industries are not the only ones to be jargon-laced. Every area of specialized expertise has its own set of jargon. And politicos are truly masterful in their use of jargon to convince us that they are saying something incredibly important and beneficial to us all when, in reality, they are clueless and their actions will almost certainly lead to our eventual wreck and ruin, not to mention a major siphoning of our pockets.

It's just that because technology has so thoroughly permeated our lives, even the least technical of people today are frequently asked to wade through a massive amount of jargon spewed out by technology vendors and their minions. Brain surgeons undoubtedly have a considerable body of argot that would be well outside my base of knowledge and my ability to comprehend. Fortunately, most of us don't need to carry on meticulous discussions of brain surgery very often. (Although many readers and dear friends have frequently suggested that I should have my head examined.) However, I doubt that there are very many people in the developed world who can go a whole day without using at least one and probably a number of products that incorporate some digital technology.

When considering jargon's capacity to easily influence so many uninitiated plebeians, don't assume that the people who readily fall for it are total idiots. I'm just as likely to be taken in by argot as the next guy. Then again, many people contend that this fact supports the theory that people who believe jargon for jargon's sake are complete fools.

None of us can know everything about everything. We must rely on a speaker's credentials and his or her impressive-sounding words as our guide to what is right and what is wrong in areas where we do not have any expertise. Unfortunately, the truth is that jargon, done well, sounds impressive even when it's total rubbish. It usually fools most of us unless we possess the expertise necessary to know the difference.

I don't mind so much that we are easily fooled by jargon, but what really makes me angry are the propeller-heads who cruelly mock John and Joanne Q. Public whenever Mr. and Ms. Public don't readily comprehend the propeller-heads' techno-babble. Hey brainiacs, if everybody understood this mumbo-jumbo as well as you do, nobody would need you. You'd rapidly become redundant, de-hired, employment-challenged, unwaged, leisured, pursuing other career opportunities, indefinitely idled, permanently furloughed, or--to avoid the human resources (personnel) jargon designed to obscure the truth and make it less painful--unemployed.

Rather than deriding people for their lack of technical knowledge, appreciate it and courteously help them to do whatever it is that they want to do with your technology. And when you are helping them, use plain English--English that your mother would understand or, better yet, English that your grandmother would understand. Feel free to ask your brain surgeon to do the same the next time you need some neurosurgery performed on your cerebellum, limbic system, or cerebral cortex. On the other hand, there are some medical disciplines where I would prefer that doctors speak to me exclusively in jargon even if I don't understand it. Colonoscopies come to mind.

Let me be clear that I'm not arguing against the use of all jargon. It's a necessary shorthand that facilitates efficient conversation among experts in a particular field. Without jargon, all complex activities requiring interaction among similarly credentialed people would stop.

Think about it. A relational database is "a collection of data items stored electronically and organized into tables consisting of precisely defined rows and columns. Each row contains information about a single person, place, or thing. Each column contains a particular piece of information about all of the persons, places or things represented by the rows. The organization of the data is such that the rows in some tables may be linked to rows in other tables through the use of unique identifiers appearing in columns in all of the linked tables." If, instead of saying "relational database," computer people had to say "a collection of data items stored electronically and organized into tables consisting of ..." every time they wanted to talk about a relational database, nobody would use one ever again. Any conversation about system development involving relational databases would be far too long and cumbersome to leave sufficient time to accomplish anything useful once the talking is done.

If we expanded the no jargon rule to all IT terms (or, to de-jargon "Information Technology," "technologies involved in the collection, storage, management, processing, analysis, dissemination, and/or reporting of information"), we'd quickly revert to doing everything with paper and pencils. If we forced a no jargon rule on all human activities, we'd soon be back living in caves, hunting, gathering, and dying horrible deaths from what are now curable diseases.

All I'm saying is, go ahead, use your jargon in conversations with like-minded individuals, but keep it among yourselves. Don't spew your gobbledygook on the rest of us, unless, of course, you are trying to impress us and get us to think that you're an expert. In which case, spew to your heart's content confident in the knowledge that, as our eyes slowly glass over, we, the uninitiated, will probably readily buy into every word you say, truthful or not.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He'd be happy to help you with your market segmentation, product positioning, and the creation of marketing collateral with high-impact, engaging jargon that will allow you to achieve significant market penetration and share.

Joel Klebanoff

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, writer, and formerly president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto-based marketing communications firm. He has 30 years' experience in various IT capacities and now specializes in writing articles, white papers, and case studies for IT vendors and publications across North America. Joel is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. He holds a BS in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto.

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