Culture is a tough nut for technical sorts to crack. It meaning is surprisingly resistant to both empirical inquiry and algorithms. It is the absolute opposite of bromides such as “universal,” “human nature,” and “globalization.” It has no time for these Anglocentric concepts, and it eludes easy definition.
In a way, culture is all there is. The countless actions we perform without stepping back (how we dress for work, how we frame questions, what we eat, when we laugh, what we set out to accomplish, what we read, how we write) are culture’s byproducts. For any idea to gain traction, it must have cultural influence.
Even “revolutionary” movements such as the Industrial Revolution didn’t take root everywhere, for largely cultural reasons. It wasn’t that long ago (all said) that a Chinese emperor rejected Britain’s industrialism as useless, sending a surefire salvo in a culture war that precipitated actual war. In this way, culture is both nebulous and deeply material.
Just look at soccer. Ill-defined American concepts of “masculinity” and “transparency” have long made soccer – a game that Americans imagine to be played by effeminate Europeans who flop in the penalty box to decide the outcome – an outcast in its sport pantheon. The result? The USA – the most scientifically advanced country ever, with the most well conditioned athletes in the history of mankind – can barely compete in a sport that, on paper, it should be able to dominate.
Raymond Williams described culture thusly (emphasis added):
“We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life—the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning–the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind.”
I put an asterisk in the title because while culture is definitely jargon – thrown all over the place as a vague job perk and something to be bantered about at holiday parties – there is meaning worth freeing from all of that pretense. Accordingly, it is distinct from truly vacuous terminology such as “the cloud” and “innovation,” which do not encapsulate concepts with anywhere near the scope or import captured by “culture.”
- Jargony definition: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.” (via Brian Chesky of AirBnb)
- Use it in a jargony definition: “We can offer a laid back culture, ping-pong tables, free beer, competitive salary.” (via me, off the top of my head)
- Non-jargony definition: see Raymond Wiliams excerpt above
- Use it in a non-jargony sentence(s): “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings.” (via Raymond Williams)
I had a long response planned to Chesky’s post on Medium, “Don’t Fuck Up the Culture,” but Scott Berkun already said basically everything I wanted to cover. He covered some important and rarely aired sentiments such as:
- “Culture” does not have to imply “passion,” especially not for work
- Culture is not static and will naturally evolve even at the societal level, let alone the organizational level
- What most companies call “culture” is actually the whims of the CEO, whom Berkun rightly labels the “chief cultural officer.”
Moreover, he points out that culture is not some bullshit resource that can be vetted by typical management processes. There is no meaningful big data process for culture, no metrics that are going to yield real insight about what it is and why it emerged.
A startup that I used to work at prided itself on a “laid back” culture blah blah blah, but it never showed said culture existed in everyday operations. When good employees went through rough patches, either at work or elsewhere, they were not taken care of. The whole company seemed to punish anyone who asked questions or tried to think outside of some ridiculously constrained box in which the app existed (I hate “think outside the box” as a metaphor since it has no equivalent in the physical world, but Jesus, the box in question here was like one tile of a Rubik’s Cube).
See? Culture is what you do, not what you wrap up in jargon or pepper throughout one of many “motivational” speeches at Monday lunches. This part of culture is what makes it so tough to deal with – despite having the airs of some wispy, infinitely dissectible subject such as “the cloud” or “innovation” (or “progress” or “technology”) it underpins even the most base, physical actions. Culture determines if roads get built or if war is fought or averted. Plus, whom a company hires or fires – whom it leaves in potential desperation or allows into the fold of prosperity – says WAY more about its culture than any boilerplate in its job posting. Culture makes the intangible tangible.
Something sinister is afoot, we’re told. If you’ve been monitoring the situation in the U.S. involving the Federal Communications Commission (a government regulator tasked with overseeing Internet service) and America’s ISPs, you’ll know that “net neutrality” is in danger.
In English, this means that megacorporations such as Comcast and AT&T will be able to charge content makers a premium to have their sites and services put into a “fast lane.” So if Google paid AT&T for one such speedy corridor, then YouTube would load much faster than Joe Schmoe and his bootstrapped streaming video startup’s site.
What’s the impact of this change? It is hard to quantify since Internet traffic has, for the most part, been treated equally for decades. Plus, moral judgement of “net neutrality” depends on whether you think the Internet is a public service or a corporate good.
If you want to really scare people, though, tell them that the decline of “net neutrality” will Stifle Innovation.
What is innovation?
- Term: innovation
- Jargony definition: “the action or process of innovating.” (via Google)
- Jargony definition not from a dictionary: “I concluded that this was the single difference between the innovator and the ordinary person: one saw the dots and connected them while others 1) didn’t see them or 2) if they did, they didn’t explore, question, or connect any of them.” (via David Brier)
- English definition: “Creating something new.” (via me)
- Use it in a jargony sentence: “Apple is incapable of real innovation now that Steve Jobs is dead.”
- Use it in an English sentence: “The Ford production system was a key innovation in capitalism.”
Innovation is misused so much that its meaning has been destroyed. Horace Dediu has helpfully tried to pick up the pieces, supplying well thought-out definitions for novelty, innovation, creation, and invention that segment these terms into a hierarchy. According to Dediu, innovation is not only something new, but also something uniquely useful.
What a surprise, then, that seemingly every niche app can be branded an innovation, or that useless gadgets such as Google Glass can be anointed the successors to the iPhone. It should be cause for pause that both the left and right sides of the political spectrum in America can get behind “innovation,” either as a progressivist mantra or a codeword for deregulation. Like “the cloud,” it is whatever its sayer wants it to be.
Is innovation good?
Not always. Innovation, like progress, is often construed as a force that moves in one direction, which is supremely odd given the number of directions that almost anyone or anything can take – why reduce everything to some simplistic backward/forward dichotomy? What if the innovations of ad-supported content (like this blog) and massive data collection are actually retrograde in terms of their impact on civic good and privacy?
As it is commonly used, the term innovation skirts over these issues. It’s a business marketing term, basically. It almost always inflates the value of what it describes, and is rightfully skewered (my favorite example is satirical Twitter account Prof. Jeff H. Jarvis’ analysis of Spongebob Squarepants). Look, I understand the desire to stand out from the crowd – you’re not just making software, you’re innovating!
But innovation, at least in common formulation, has a ridiculously constrained outlook – it essentially assumes that market forces, and a few savvy tech startups, can work everything out and create the best of all worlds. Yet in some alternate universe, imagine governments providing the financial and political muscle to create publicly supported alternatives to Facebook and Google. Would these innovations have been better (in that they’re more useful and equitable to more people) than the innovations we have now?
Introducing “the cloud”
One of Jason Fried’s best insights is that business writing is terrible. It is surprisingly difficult to notice this lack of quality, if only because the Web is full of soundalikes and it’s easy to lapse into a browsing coma and just start believing that this shit is normal. After a while, you just figure that everyone is a solutions provider leveraging core competencies to create tangible ROI for stakeholders. Not only that, but they’re also using “the cloud” to make it all happen.
Explaining the cloud to someone who isn’t an IT asshole or a startup entrepreneur is difficult. It’s a model – sorry, paradigm – that isn’t based on anything understandable in the real world. What does an actual cloud do? Nothing – it is mostly immaterial and unsubstantial (how appropriate), and so any terminology inviting comparisons with it is starting from scratch. How apropos – having a blank slate is useful if you have a nebulous topic to define.
What you need to know about “the cloud”
- Term: the cloud
- Also known as: Cloud computing, cloud compute (yes, without the participle form)
- Sample jargony definition: “Cloud Computing is a broad term that describes a broad range of services.”(via Rackspace – wow, that clears it up)
- Sample English definition: “Cloud computing is a great euphemism for centralization of computer services under one server.” – (via Evgeny Morozov)
- Use it in a jargony sentence: “The cloud enables the flexibility and scalability need to support particularly demanding applications, giving service providers new opportunities to become more agile and provision resources more quickly.” – (via me, off the top of my head)
- Use it in a jargony sentence written by someone else: “Cloud computing has changed the way businesses work. It has opened the doors to increased collaboration.” (via AVG – I wasn’t far off)
- Use it in an English sentence: “The cloud is stuff that that is exchanged over the Internet.”
Why is “the cloud” jargon?
Now, I said that the cloud is tough to explain to the layperson. Eons ago, I wondered if Dropbox were so much more intuitive than its competitors because it wrapped server storage in a metaphor that was easy to grasp – a “box” in which you stashed your stuff. In comparison, Google Drive and OneDrive symbolized something that no one particularly likes (a hard drive) and iCloud was the worst of all, using IT jargon to stand in for something that is already too complex for most consumers to understand.
The cloud is also hard to understand because it is just an elaborate synonym for the Internet, itself a dense concept. If you have dabbled any in computer programming, you may have stumbled across the term “object-oriented programming,” which suffers from a similar disease – it is based on abstract concepts without facile real world equivalents and is as inaccessible, at least conceptually, as Kilimanjaro to beginners.
What’s the point of talking so much about “the cloud”?
The cloud is the be-all/end-all of business transformation, we’re told. It’s a vehicle for anything you want to plug:
- Data storage – Dropbox, Google Drive, et al
- “Collaboration” – Google Docs, GitHub, etc.
- Anything backed by a server – Netflix, YouTube, whatever
It’s a great marketing term, end of story. It sounds sleek (who doesn’t love clouds?) and it’s roomy enough to contain any message you want. But really, the cloud is a way for some companies to sell customers tons of abstract stuff to customers. For example, Business A may have been storing all of its data on site (“on-premises”), but now it thinks it can have things easier by using someone else’s (Business B’s) machines instead. It’s like renting computer power – there’s real $$$ to be made on charging customers indefinitely rather than all at once (in jargon, this is expressed as “OPEX versus CAPEX” – stay tuned for a future Jargon Dictionary entry on these terms).
The cloud is all things to all people: It is cheap, it is expensive, it is a good idea, it is a bad idea, it is secure, it is risky, it is public, it is private. Aristophanes would be proud, since he predicted all of this cognitive dissonance 2,500 years ago. And as George W. Bush would say, if you don’t stand for anything, you don’t stand for anything!