Monday, March 07, 2005

Managed presence

Nothing is more toxic than management-speak: the numbing jargon, the -ize verbs, the pretentiousness, the hubris and the blinkered myopia of their "insights," the rampant cynicism masquerading as optimism (i.e. the belief that if one's statements are either cheerful or incomprehensible enough, no one will notice how calculated their evil is), the putrid attempts at meme generation, the euphemisms, the passive voice constructions to avoid citing their own responsibility for their vile deeds. When you read The Wall Street Journal you certainly see enough of this, but at least it is leavened by the arch tone of the journalists, who at least seem to imply that we all know that such talk is bullshit. But the frightening implication remains that the people who pull the levers in the capitalist world actually think in these terms, that their interior monologues consists of this soulless discourse rife with illogic, rationalization, and self-flattery. And when your exposure to this language is unfiltered by the press, when you get a blast of it full-on in a "mission statement" or in a brochure for one of their many conferences where they "visionize operational synergies," it causes an almost suicidal sense of despair.

This is what I faced while editing material for an upcoming IT conference, in which CTOs from a variety of leading-edge tech firms (see how I've been infected by it?) blather on about their strategies for market domination and try to attract investors for their plans. All are looking for new ways to make a profit by intruding technologies into areas of life where we were perfectly happy without it before, inverting the logic of what really happens in their propaganda -- that just as management withdrew craft knowledge from workers and made them skillless and dependant on their bosses, so the tech indistry seeks to withdraw our skills of dealing with everyday life and make us slavishly devoted to our gadgets, which we suddenly need to survive in the world, whether at work or at home. Just note the simpering, drooling faces of cell-phone users as they toddler down the streets they congest while they are too busy talking, or note the pacifiied stare of a man fiddling with the little buttons on his BlackBerry. These people have been infantilized by technology, yet they consider themselves liberated. Perhaps this is what modern freedom has beeen reduced to, the freedom to act like a child forever.

Of all the troubling innovations these tech firms proposed, I was most disturbed by developments in "presence management," which is a gussied-up way of saying methods of communicating whether you are there or not. The epistimological implications of this are dizzying, as tech firms endeavor to insert technology into the very notion of existing. Once, simple ontology was sufficient. You were there, because your body was living, breathing, and reacting to external stimuli. You were present simply by virtue of existing somewhere. You didn't need to manage the notion of whether or not you existed, whether or not you were present. But thanks to the nebulous shadow world of cyberspace, presence and being have taken on various shades of gray that new tech applications hope to exploit. Now you might be "here" for certain people and absent for others, or here only in some limited capability, or here in several different places simultaneously as you take on the divine gift of ubiquity.

Once upon a time there was a social cost for being so evasive which enforced a civil discourse that made one consider the conseqeunces of one's actions. Now that cost has been eradicated, freeing people to treat other people like machines. The more social interaction is mediated by machines, the more machine like it becomes, until we finally perfect ourselves, and communuicate to each other directly through wireless brainwaves of pure digital code.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. People don't speak English anymore. Sadly, however, it's gotten to the point where jargon-speak is required in some places. Without it, you're just not speaking the language of idiots properly. Anyone who apes what they read in Fast Company deserves to be beaten with a bag of oranges.