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Silicon Valley jargon deepens California divide

Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” is California editor for Zocalo Public Square.
Joe Mathews, co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” is California editor for Zocalo Public Square.

You can’t talk to people in Silicon Valley anymore. They don’t even speak our language.

I’m not referencing software code or Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin. I’m talking, literally, about the words Valley denizens use in sentences such as: “That startup is an X for Y model, they don’t even have a minimum viable product, and that space is already in Hype Cycle. Their only hope is to pull off an acqui-hire.” (Rough translation: They’re doomed.)

In other words, our technological masters no longer speak the same language that most Californians do. And that is a sign of a growing divide. The Valley’s growing cadres of wealthy and powerful technocrati have turned the Bay Area into an island that feels cut off from the rest of struggling California. Their outlook and lives are global while most of us exist locally. There are chasms between their technological sophistication and ours, and between our diversity and their lack of it.

Yes, they welcome our dollars, downloads and baby pictures, but they don’t really invite us into their conversations. Instead, they’ve built a wall of jargon that keeps us at a distance.

As a frequently bewildered visitor to Silicon Valley, I have felt this first-hand. But I didn’t understand the full extent of this language barrier until reading Rochelle Kopp and Steven Ganz’s new book, “Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley.”

Kopp, a management consultant, and Ganz, an entrepreneur, say they wrote the book to help people – especially from overseas – who want to do business in Silicon Valley but bump up against jargon they call “impenetrable at best, and at worst downright ridiculous.”

The book has 100 chapters, covering hundreds of terms, from “agile development” to “unicorpse.” Kopp and Ganz say that Silicon Valley’s jargon doesn’t intentionally exclude people but is a byproduct of Bay Area, crowding with people living and working in cramped quarters, while sometimes shutting out the rest of the world.

“There are so many great things happening here, it would be great if the conversation were more open,” Kopp said in an interview. “There’s a big element of, ‘This is a private club, and you either know what people are talking about or you don’t and that really marks you.”

At root, the language barrier is a monument to Silicon Valley’s self-image as a place that is reshaping the world. Powerful people who create new products and companies tend to put their names on things. The downside to that can be a loss of perspective (not everything is revolutionary or disruptive). It’s telling that the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” derives its humor from how seriously tech people take themselves.

Of course, Silicon Valley is powerful, and it’s easier to be funny when you’re the underdog. The biggest Valley companies also face pressure to project neutrality; note the criticism of Facebook over whether its algorithms are infected by political bias.

It’s true that executives like Zuckerberg or Apple’s Tim Cook are more outspoken than your average corporate titan. And the tech investor Sean Parker has become a top California political donor. But these men attract attention because they are exceptions.

Valley types, if they engage at all, are far more likely to engage internationally on regulatory or climate change issues than they do here in California. The Valley rarely raises its voice on the fundamentals of state governance: school funding, health care, prisons and public universities. That lack of engagement is one reason why wealthy California has such weak, underfunded public services.

Of course, our civic world is a nasty place, in no small part because of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms the Valley has created. So it’s no surprise that Silicon Valley people, like so many of us, are turning inward, and talking mostly to themselves.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocaolopublicsquare.org.

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