Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

word games

Ian Bogost reports on what some people think of as a big moment in the history of international capitalism:

At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.

And then Bogost zeroes in on what’s peculiar about this report:

But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything — from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.

Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?

I’m reminded here of a comment the great mathematician G. H. Hardy once made to C. P. Snow: “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition that doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd.”

As Bogost points out, the financial world uses “technology” to mean “computer technology.” But, he also argues, this is not only nonsensical, it’s misleading. Try depriving yourself of the word “technology” to describe those companies and things start looking a little different. “Almost all of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue, for example, comes from advertising; by that measure, there’s an argument that those firms are really Media industry companies, with a focus on Broadcasting and Entertainment.” Amazon is a retailer. Among those Big Five only Apple and Microsoft are computing companies, and they are so in rather different ways, since Microsoft makes most of its money from software, Apple from hardware.

Here’s a useful habit to cultivate: Notice whenever people are leaning hard on a particular word or phrase, making it do a lot of work. Then try to formulate what they’re saying without using that terminology. The results can be illuminating.


  • The misuse of language goes deeper than repurposing the terms technology and intellectual. The preeminence of so-called “tech companies” are the latest developments in a shift away from the economic dominance of material resources (e.g., Big Oil, Big Ag) toward information resources, which informs our macrohistory since the Gutenberg Revolution. James Beniger’s book The Control Revolution describes it this way:

    [The] reason why the Control Revolution has been so profound in its impact on human society [is that] it transformed no less than the essential life function itself. Rapid technological expansion of what Darwin called “marvelous structure and properties” and what we now see to include organization, information processing, and communication to effect control constitute a change unprecedented in recorded history. We would have to go back at least to the emergence of the vertebrate brain if not to the first replicating molecule … to find a [comparable] leap in the capability to process information.

    Companies that specialize in information flows have gained because, despite our obvious bodily needs, our demand for information is practically limitless, and supply has been catalyzed by digital technologies that are the most recent great leap forward.

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