This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2018

Defining Canada by the language of Silicon Valley

There’s a problem when people attempting to define our country's culture use the language of rejected TEDx Talks

Tyler Hellard@poploser

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CBC’s Strategy 2020 has adopted a particular language of Silicon Valley. Photo courtesy of CBC/Radio-Canada.

I spend a lot of time parsing the language of Silicon Valley, that heady mix of technobabble and pseudoeconomics where many words are used to say very little. It’s a lexicon designed by “visionary” business types (though they prefer to be called “entrepreneurs” now) and the middle managers they hire, saying words filled with pomp, promise, and superfluous syllables. Why “think” when you can “ideate”? “Use” when you can “utilize”? “Talk” when you can “engage”?

This is how we speak now: “The focus is to engage target segments intensely with some, but not all, services; to engage Canadians in the public space in a way that is meaningful and personal to the individual.” These particular verbal gymnastics come courtesy of a rising star in the startup scene, with a billion dollars in public backing—the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

It’s one of many techspeak paragraphs that made up CBC’s Strategy 2020. This framework from 2014 features boxes with arrows pointing at other boxes, millennials listening to music on iPhones, and variations on the word “invest” a staggering 17 times across 18 pages. More recently, our federal government released Creative Canada, a “new vision and approach to creative industries and to growing the creative economy.” There are more boxes, arrows, and pictures of tech-savvy youth, and a near identical one-to-one ratio of “invest” to page count.

Neither of these documents is necessarily bad. Investing in art and artists (“content creators” and “cultural entrepreneurs,” as the government calls them) is a fantastic idea.

But there’s a real problem when people attempting to define Canadian culture use the language of rejected TEDx Talks. We’re talking about what is supposed to make us distinctly Canadian, and, in the official policy of our government, how to position Canada as “a world leader in putting its creative industries at the centre of its future economy.” Words matter, and today it appears that our collective discussion around culture is akin to pitching rich people for startup capital.

We’ve already seen this story play out in other industries. News media pivoted to Valley-jargon years ago, diligently using it to define success. It has worked out well for Silicon Valley, and maybe news organizations had to lean in to survive declining revenues. But I don’t think anyone will claim this language shift has benefitted truth and understanding. We measure success now with “clicks” and “digital reach,” which has more to do with people hitting “like” and “share” than it does with comprehending the world.

Words matter, and today it appears that our collective discussion around culture is akin to pitching rich people for startup capital

For years we’ve let tech companies like Uber get away with skirting municipal regulations. Facebook, meanwhile, has whittled away at the very nature of privacy (and, we’re discovering, democracy) mainly because we have accepted that it’s the price we pay for “innovation” and “disruption,” exciting words and, therefore, good for us.

This bafflegab and the mode of thinking that comes with it is everywhere. It was probably inevitable that it would eventually set the terms for “culture”—a word with a definition that seems perpetually open to debate. I’m not sure we should be giving Twitter or Netflix a say, though. If you’ve ever worked at a tech company, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “There are no bad ideas.” Except there are. And this is one of them.

Adopting tech-speak as the language of culture dumbs down our collective discourse and reduces achievements to “engagement metrics.” It’s volume over substance; vista over hinterland. MBAs with an impossible number of LinkedIn connections have usurped our language, leading to discussions about the “creative economy” instead of creativity.

Why foster an appreciation for art when we can just teach artists to sell it, like insurance or shoes or special in-game add-ons that are absolutely necessary to beat the really hard levels?

This doesn’t feel Canadian. At least to me. But I grew up when Canadian culture was staunchly guarded by protectionist policies that constantly reminded me how distinct and important our art was to our identity. It wasn’t a perfect system, but at least it didn’t emerge from a PowerPoint presentation assembled in San Francisco. People like to speak like the ruling class, and somehow that became Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Peter Thiel—men with varying degrees of vision and very careful vocabularies—and the companies they got rich building. Maybe this kind of naked capitalism is our culture now. That would mean Strategy 2020 and Creative Canada don’t represent a modernization of old policy, but a realignment toward reality.

Tyler Hellard (@poploser) has been writing about technology and culture for This for the last five years. His first novel will be released by Invisible Publishing this fall. He lives in Calgary.

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