What is it that makes us swallow buzzwords whole and regurgitate them with relish, I have often wondered. There are all sorts of expressions the clever and the wannabe clever amongst us chuck at the world — sometimes to clarify, sometimes to obfuscate, and sometimes to come across as clarifying while actually obfuscating.
In my own little well of journalism, I remember a time when ‘online’ was fashionable, and ‘multimedia’ the rage. Then along came ‘convergence’, and we spoke reverently, ardently, ecstatically of it, wet-dreaming of the day when — ooh, that day, glory be to that day! — everything will merge and all will be one and one all. Now we sprinkle our speech with ‘innovation’, ‘optimisation’ and ‘clickability’, with ‘immersion’, ‘snackability’ and ‘p-commerce’.
And outside, in the real bad world battered by mangled marketing, there is a language lunacy of mind-numbing — but unsurprising — proportions. There they talk of ‘synergic sustainability’ and ‘sustained scalability’, of ‘innovative pedagogy’ and ’integrated innovations’, of ‘actionable analytics’, of ‘context marketing’, of ‘embedded solutions’ — why, even of ‘future system sustainability’ and ‘resource calls on the horizon’. There they talk of ‘reaching out’ when they email, and mark ‘for wide cascade down’ when all they want is have their messages shared.
Then there is ‘agility’. In my immediate environment, among academics and non-academics, this trips off tongues faster than turpitude off Trump. Everyone, and everything, needs to be ‘agile’ these days. The first time I heard the expression it sounded all so exciting, so dynamic, so welcomingly non-academic and energetic. I imagined the vice-chancellor in a graceful pirouette and the dean attempting a grand emboite. And what I would give to have the lecturers, every single one of them, man and woman, extending into an elegant ballroom throwaway, backs arching, necks stretching, lips smiling!
Alas. The agility we talk about today is of a different nature, one perhaps born of the Agile Manifesto, a corrupt version of its philosophy that has seeped into the very soul of our work culture, corporatised, disfigured and ‘cascaded’ in countless confabulations since 2001 by every Process Beast who has ever laid hands on a management handbook. So we speak about ‘agile teams’, ‘agile management’, ‘agile release train’ and ‘agile practices’. We speak of ‘continuous integration’, ‘acceptance testing’ and ‘lean agile leadership’. And at universities we talk of ‘agile curriculum’, ‘agile classrooms’, ‘agile teaching practices’. All of this would have been pardonable, even tolerable, except that those amongst us who talk of agility the loudest do so while presiding over processes so hard-wired, so concretised that one is left gaping at the contradiction.
Which brings me full circle, to my original question. Why do we do it? Why do we absorb jargon so eagerly? Is it for conformity? For acceptance? Or have we gone so far with our abuse of the language, so beyond redemption that this is the only way we can communicate now?