Technocrats and Technobabble

On the appeal of sounding like you're smart.

Dear Anthropophaginians,

One of the big challenges I’ve been dealing with amidst the launch of The Dispatch is an ingrained distrust of Internet jargon and the people who try to monetize it. A million years ago, when I was starting National Review Online, it was like the Wild West for Internet consultants of every stripe. They were like spammer phone calls made flesh. I developed a powerful animosity toward anyone who couldn’t explain what they wanted to do in language I could understand. If I asked a perfectly reasonable question and got carpet-bombed with indecipherable jargon in response, I assumed I was being conned or, perhaps, that the salesman had conned himself. “Oh, you don’t understand? You can monetize the pings to the framfra by streamlining backward overflow and product intergortion—excuse me—integration.”

I understand that the gearheads in the backroom use a lot of jargon. But that’s true for almost every product under the sun—or under soul-sucking, vitamin-D depleting, fluorescent lamps in some windowless lab somewhere. Chefs, surgeons, shoemakers, even journalists have their own lingo. But it’s rare that the sales staff use that stuff with laymen—if they’re good at their jobs. I found that in those Wild West days, a lot of folks thought they could exploit the relative ignorance of the customer and bluff their way through conversations.

It later dawned on me that at least some of them were actually trying to sell the illusion of competence itself. That’s what a lot of business executives do, after all. They bring in consultants like McKinsey, not so much to get the best advice, but to be able to tell their board or their stockholders that they went with the best advice. That way, when the ABC News reporting standards hit the fan, they don’t deserve to be blamed. “Hey, it’s not my fault! We were just going with the smartest advice we could find!”

In other words, sometimes the product really isn’t the product. Consider Bennington College. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the most expensive college in the country. Whenever some other school raised its tuition above Bennington’s, they would immediately see their raise and raise again. The reason: Being the most expensive school in the country offered a slight marketing advantage. Some fathers liked to brag to their golf buddies that their kids “had to go” to the most expensive school in the country.  The ability to make such boasts was more valuable than what you might save sending your kid to the second-most expensive school.

Being the priciest school was what economists call a “Veblen good.” When people pay through the nose to show off how “woke,” they are, that’s called “virtue signaling.” But that’s not the only kind of signaling out there. And there’s a market for every kind of signaling under the sun. Which brings me to…

On Warren’s “Plan.”

…which brings me to what no less than Bill Galston calls “the longest suicide note in recorded history”: Elizabeth Warren’s healthcare plan.

Lots of folks have dunked on her $52 trillion dollar “plan” to socialize the healthcare industry in the United States. I think David French and Brian Riedl’s efforts are among the best. But ideologically, I’m closer to Noah Rothman’s exasperation. It’s insulting that people are expected to take it seriously at all.

As I wrote in my LA Times column, the point of her plan—and Warren’s whole “I have a plan for that!” schtick—isn’t really about socializing medicine. It’s about selling the idea that she is the serious candidate for serious people who think that political seriousness is proven with PowerPoint presentations, graphs, charts, etc. 

There is a segment of the public, highly concentrated amongst the ranks of liberal professionals, that thinks all culture war fights are not only illegitimate but that it’s only the right that engages in such things.

The thing is, the very idea that all of the important questions about how to organize our economy and society should be deferred “upwards” to a bunch highly credentialed experts has been one of the oldest and most defining culture war fault-lines since the Founding Era. It goes back to the squabbles between Adams and Jefferson. In the 19th century, populism was fueled by the idea that elites—bankers, railroad magnates, etc.—in places like New York had too much power over the lives of people in what today would be called “flyover country,” but back then might have been called “train-pass” country.

The Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century wanted to remove as many political and economic questions from the people or the private sector as possible and hand them to “disinterested” experts and “social engineers” (then not a pejorative term). The New Dealers continued the effort. They wanted an “industrial general staff with dictatorial powers” to run the economy, in the words of Stuart Chase. FDR explained in his “Economic Bill of Rights” State of the Union Address that a return to the depoliticized, free-market policies of 1920s would be a surrender to “fascism” at home just as we were defeating it abroad.

Progressives’ great marketing trick was pretending—often starting with themselves—that they had the unimpeachable authority of “science” on their side. This pretense, which Friedrich Hayek derided as “scientism,” held that some expert in Washington was smarter than the market. They sold this idea by drowning opponents with social scientific jargon.

As Tom Cruise said when the Scientologists were applying the electrodes, let me be clear: It wasn’t all ridiculous. Public health experts and civil engineers really did have important and life-saving ideas about public hygiene, sanitation, etc. I am not arguing that wonks are making it all up and don’t know anything. What I am saying is that what “science” tells us about how to organize society is very complicated, diversely interpretable, and often extremely ambiguous.  Moreover, the capacity for experts to delude themselves into thinking their agenda isn’t shot through with political or ideological biases is profound. Science doesn’t say that socialized medicine is the only solution to our healthcare system’s problems. But socialized medicine is a cultural and ideological priority for many of the sorts of people who like to pretend they’re only following the facts and data where it leads. In other words, they start with the object of their desire and reason backward from it, grabbing charts and slapping buzzphrases on their plans as a way to sell it. But they aren’t actually selling socialized medicine; they’re selling the idea that you can be a really serious and realistic person who favors socialized medicine.

Marxists were brilliant at this. Marxism was, at its heart, a religious enterprise that used scientific jargon to draft its catechisms and incantations. As I often joke, they were like the Reasonablists—the cult in Parks and Recreation that worships a lizard god named Zorpwho called themselves “Reasonablists” because it would make anyone who criticized them sound “unreasonable.” It’s the same reason Scientologists call themselves a “Church” and a “Religion.”

Elizabeth Warren isn’t a Marxist, but her “plan” is a tribute to this technique. She quotes experts! Makes assumptions about revenues and projects cost-savings in future years! How could you criticize that?

Of course, she could have written the whole thing the same way and then ended it with, “and if outlays exceed expected revenues due to non-compliance of some stakeholders, we shall push them into Zorp’s volcano mouth” and the whole thing would be just as plausible.

The idea that this plan could survive two seconds upon contact with political reality is absurd. History is full of examples of priests wielding sacred texts as a way to impose order on the unfaithful. Moses returning with the tablets, Muhammed’s disciples riding forth to conquer the infidels, the Bolsheviks waving Das Kapital around (note, I do not consider all of these morally or theologically equivalent enterprises). But the idea that the U.S. Congress (not to mention corporate America, the insurance and hospital industries and, oh yeah, the voters) would bow like Neanderthals before a flashlight when faced with her healthcare scheme as if it was some woke-wonk Necronomicon—watch out guys, she’s got a plan!—is so effulgent in its asininity that it offends me personally.

Word Power

Okay enough of all that. Let’s get back to using words for fun and profit.

I think the most honest form of word fakery—fake languages like Klingon or Valyrian aside—is technobabble.

What is technobabble?

Here’s how Memory Alpha—apparently one of the best websites to kill time at while waiting for your virginity to somehow miraculously self-correct (I kid, I kid)—explains technobabble:

Technobabble (also known as Treknobabble) is a moniker describing the pseudo-scientific terminology of Star Trek. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, some of the actors dubbed it "Piller-filler" after executive producer Michael Piller. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 252) According to Piller, the latter term originated with Brent Spiner, whose character of Data gave many technobabble speeches. Writers would frequently write "(TECH)" in draft scripts "as a sort of cry for help" to the science advisor André Bormanis, who would then come up with appropriate terminology.

I enjoy technobabble as much as the next guy, if the next guy enjoys it a moderate amount. (For what it’s worth, Technobabble.biz bills itself as the best Star Trek technobabble generator on the web, and who am I to doubt that—or waste time trying to disprove it?) Though I prefer the variants that stick close to what the science fiction guys call “rubber science.” That’s when the fake science sticks as close as possible to plausibility that the audience doesn’t say, “Oh come on!” the way even glue-huffing bonobos do when watching The Core. All science fiction is fiction, after all. But it’s more enjoyable when the writers don’t make the suspension of disbelief so heavy a lift you get a hernia just from paying attention.

But technobabble is a kind of outlier in the art of what I’m going to call gnostic language. (Note: I am not referring to the mystical language of Gnosticism. I think that stuff is fascinating, but that’s a subject for another day.)

What I mean is the use of language to create the impression that the speaker or writer possesses some special knowledge, some superior insight into the truth or membership in a privileged club.

Shibboleths are one tool of this kind of thing. The story of the shibboleth comes from the Bible (Book of Judges, Chapter 12).  The Gileadites kicked the asses of the Ephraimites in a big battle. When the surviving Ephraimite refugees tried to cross the river Jordan and go home, the Gileadites set up a checkpoint. They asked all the pilgrims if they were Ephraimites. If they answered, “No,” the Gileadites replied, “Okay, say the word ‘shibboleth’.”

The Ephraimites, you see, were the opposite of Cindy Brady and couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound. So the Gileadites knew that if the person said “siboleth”—without the “sh”—then that person was lying. The Gileadites killed 42,000 people because they couldn’t put “sh” in front of “it” or “inola.”

Shibboleth has come to mean any word, phrase, pronunciation, or reference that distinguishes one group from another. In The Wire, Snoop and Chris asked drug dealers if they could identify Baltimore club music. If they couldn’t, that meant they were interlopers from New York, deserving of the Ephraimite treatment. Every subculture has its share of shibboleths, from sports to computer science to video games (just ask Leeroy Jenkins).

Of course, shibboleth is just a fancy word for things like code, lingo, jargon, etc. Which brings me to another form of gnostic language—sesquipedalian obscurantism. This is the craft of using big, rare, and complicated words to say stuff you could just as easily communicate with smaller ones.

I’m torn about this kind of thing. As a logophile—sorry, word-lover—I have a weakness for anyone who eschews “big” for “Brobdingnagian.” I should say, I have a weakness for anyone who can do it artfully. William F. Buckley was, of course, the master of this stuff. But what made him good at it was knowing when to use his superpower and when not to. Most of Buckley’s most famous quotes use short and commonplace words—in part because most of his most famous quotes come from his writing, not the verbal Cathedrals he’d construct in mid-air during conversations on Firing Line. The first panel I was ever on with Buckley left me stammering because I did not immediately remember what “lachrymosity” meant (it was a question about Bill Clinton’s ability to cry for political advantage).

For an example of what I mean, here’s a joke. Two cannibals stumble on a body in the woods and immediately dig in from either end. One shouts “I’m having a ball!” The other replies, “Boy, you eat fast!”

That joke isn’t nearly as eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious if it’s:

“Anthropophaginians perambulating a deux whereupon they aleatorically happenstance an esculent cadaver and commence to masticate in a antejentacular repast. “I’m gormandizing a gonad!” one sightseer gasconades ebulliently.

His socius in the biarchic peripatetic sodality exclaims, “Callant! You manducate with swith alacrity.”

I think a remarkable amount of politics—electoral, social, academic, interpersonal—is really about shibboleth formation, policing, and signaling. Political correctness is just one obvious and easily recognized form. But it manifests itself in every realm of life and drives so much of the culture war(s). Twitter is one giant mosh pit of gladiatorial shibboleth squabbling. Many academics convey their authority to the uninitiated and membership in the guild more by mastering terminology than by quoting their CVs. This is different from using “code words,” because the whole point of a code word is that both the speaker and the listener understand it’s code. Many shibboleths work more like humor; if you’re in on the joke, even subconsciously, you get it without having it explained. Anyway, I could go on—and intended to—but I’ll just close with another old joke that applies both to this self-indulgent sillography as well as to Ms. Warren’s plan.

A blind guy is handed a piece of matzoh and says, “Who writes this stuff?”

Various & Sundry

I’ll be at the University of Wisconsin next week, and word on the interwebs is that some alt-right trolls will be attending, like they did at my appearance with Dan Crenshaw on Monday night. If friendly faces can attend as well, that would be great, particularly if the faces are attached to the person.

I’m leaving for Spain for a few days to see my daughter, but I intend to write a Friday G-File as well. Look for the Canine Update there.

My conversation with Rich Lowry about nationalism and his book on the topic is out, and I just recorded a new one with Chris Stirewalt which should be posted Thursday.