From BuzzPhrases to BuzzPhraser TM
How everybody's habit became a couple guys' productby Doc Searls
The story that follows was written for the original BuzzPhraser. I thought it would be fun to publish it unchanged.
BuzzPhrases are built with TechnoLatin, a non-language that replaces plain English nouns with vague but precise-sounding substitutes. In TechnoLatin, a disk drive is a "data management solution." A network is a "workgroup productivity platform." A phone is a "telecommunications device".
The virtue of TechnoLatin is that it describes just about anything technical. The vice of TechnoLatin is that it really doesn't mean anything. This is because TechnoLatin is comprised of words that are either meaningless or have been reduced to that state by frequent use. Like the blank tiles in Scrabble, you can put them anywhere, but they have no value. The real value of TechnoLatin is that it sounds precise while what it says is vague as air. And as easily inflated.
Thanks to TechnoLatin, today's technology companies no longer make chips, boards, computers, monitors or printers. They don't even make products. Today everybody makes "solutions" that are described as "interoperable," "committed," "architected," "seamless" or whatever. While these words sound specific, they describe almost nothing. But where they fail as description they succeed as camouflage: they conceal meaning, vanish into surroundings and tend to go unnoticed.
Take the most over-used word in TechnoLatin today: solution. What the hell does "solution" really mean? Well, if you lift the camouflage, you see it usually means "product." Try this: every time you run across "solution" in a technology context, substitute "product." Note that the two are completely interchangeable. The difference is, "product" actually means something, while "solution" does not. In fact, the popularity of "solution" owes to its lack of specificity. While it presumably suggests the relief of some "problem," it really serves only to distance what it labels from the most frightening risk of specificity: the clarity of actual limits.
The fact is, most vendors of technology products don't like to admit that their creations are limited in any way. Surely, a new spreadsheet -- the labor of many nerd/years -- is something more than "just a spreadsheet." But what? Lacking an available noun, it's easy to build a suitable substitute with TechnoLatin. Call it an "executive information matrix." Or a "productivity enhancement engine." In all seriousness, many companies spend months at this exercise. Or even years. It's incredible.
There is also a narcotic appeal to buzzphrasing in TechnoLatin. It makes the abuser feel as if he or she is really saying something, while in fact the practice only mystifies the listener or reader. And since buzzphrasing is so popular, it gives the abuser a soothing sense of conformity, like teenagers get when they speak slang. But, like slang, TechnoLatin feels better than it looks. In truth, it looks suspicious. And with good reason. TechnoLatin often does not mean what it says, because the elaborate buzzphrases it builds are still only approximations.
But who cares? Buzzphrasing is epidemic. You can't get away from it. Everybody does it. There is one nice thing about Everybody, however: they're a big market.
So, after studying this disease for many years, I decided, like any self-respecting doctor, to profit from the problem. And, like any self-respecting Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I decided to do this with a new product for which there was absolutely no proven need, in complete faith that people would buy it. Such is the nature of marketing in the technology business.
But, lacking the investment capital required to generate demand where none exists, I decided on a more generous approach: to give it away, in hope that even if I failed to halt the epidemic, at least I could get people to talk about it.
With this altruistic but slightly commercial goal in mind, I joined farces with Ray Miller of Turtlelips Services to create a product that would encourage and support the narcotic practice of buzzphrasing. Being the brilliant programmer he is, Ray hacked it into a stack in less time than it took for me to write this prose. And now here it is, free as flu, catching on all over the damn place.
What made BuzzPhraser possible as a product is that the practice of buzzphrasing actually has rules. Like English, TechnoLatin is built around nouns. It has adjectives to modify those nouns. And adverbs to modify the adjectives. It also has a class of nouns that modify other nouns -- we call them "adnouns." And it has a nice assortment of hyphenated prefixes and suffixes (such as "multi-" and "-driven") that we call "hyphixes."
Since the TechnoLatin lexicon is filled with meaningless words in all those categories, the words that comprise TechnoLatin buzzphrases can be assembled in just about any number or order, held together as if by velcro. These are the rules:
- adverbs modify adjectives
- adjectives modify adnouns, nouns or each other
- adnouns modify nouns or other adnouns
- nouns are modified by adnouns or adjectives
- prefixes modify all adjectives
- suffixes qualify all adnouns
Here is a diagram that shows how the rules work:
As with English, there are many exceptions. But, as with programming, we don't make any. So cope with it.
With one adverb, one adjective, two adnouns, a noun and a prefix, you get "backwardly architected hyper-intelligent analysis inference leader." With an adjective and two nouns, you get "interactive leverage module." Put together buzzphrases of almost any shape and length:
- "Breakthrough-capable technology market"
- "Primarily distinguished optional contingency philosophy control power environment"
- "Executive inference server"
- "Evidently complete key business manipulation capacity method"
- "Incrementally intelligent workgroup process topology vendor"
The amazing thing is that all of these sound, as we say in TechnoLatin, "virtually credible." And one nice thing about the computer business is -- thanks largely to the brain-softening results of prolonged TechnoLatin abuse -- "virtually credible" is exactly what it means in plain English: close enough.
BuzzPhraser makes "close enough" easy to reach by substituting guesswork for thinking. Just keep hitting the button until the right buzzphrase comes along. Then use that buzzphrase in faith that at least it sounds like you know what you're saying. And hey, in this business, isn't that virtually credible?
Stewart Alsop, who published "Random Strings of TechnoLatin" along with the original Generic Description Table in both the Preceedings and Proceedings of Agenda 90; and who would like an e-mail front end that automatically discards any message with too many TechnoLatin words and buzzphrases.
Spencer F. Katt of PC Week, who devoted parts of two consecutive rumor columns to the Table, and posted it on the magazine's CompuServe bulletin board, from which so many people copied it that I thought there might be something going on here.
Guy Kawasaki, who told me "this needs to be a product."
Bob LeVitus, who told me "you ought to get this hacked into a stack."
And Ray Miller, who did it. Beautifully.
Palo Alto, California
March 7, 1991