Buzzwords Considered Harmful

Published in theory on Aug 24, 2020

As the ugly blob of this year floomphs along it occurs to me more often every day.

Buzzwords, soundbytes, catch phrases, dog whistles, memes, whatever sub-classification you care to name; These shorthand symbols for an abstraction of an idea are trending toward harmful and away from useful.

"X Considered Harmful" has to be among the most over-used tech tropes, but I will not apologize. It fits our specific case. The admittedly dumb title of this article occured to me several weeks back and I assumed there were thousands of blogs out there with a pithy thinkpiece by this title, or at the very least the phrase would have appeared by now in, minimally, a few dozen writings on related topics. Imagine my surprise.

There was only one Google Search result for 'Buzzwords considered harmful'

I had stumbled upon a rare single-result search string. A single result from 2006, attributed to Jeremy Keith. I will now proceed in ruining that small delight for future searchers.

The usefulness of buzzwords does not escape me, but I believe ethical critiques of their abuse are far too rare. I intend to address how buzzwords trend toward harm, some different types of harm they create, and how we might mitigate harmful effects through a deeper shared understanding of their limitations. This article is restricted to the world of misleading programming and technology terms, but if my thoughts are any good they should apply to communication in a more general sense.

I'm a fan of Jeremy Keith, having read his famous AJAX book, whatever it's properly called, and HTML5 for Web Designers back in 2012. The content of the URL was not written by Mr. Keith, it is a nameless writer's notes on a presentation, possibly titled Exploring AJAX. The content is not a great read, it presents as entirely unedited. Nonetheless, I had already discovered my first clarification.

Crappy buzzwords considered harmful
— Anonymous

Not all buzzwords are bad. Bad buzzwords are bad. I assert most extant buzzwords in tech are indeed, bad.

What the hell is a buzzword, anyway?

Let's start with some examples of bad buzzwords

  • The Cloud
  • Agile
  • Micro-Services
  • SaaS
  • Serverless
  • NoSQL

and the one that irks me most

  • Full Stack Developer

A scowling owl. A scowl.

The sin of all these terms is that of incompleteness. They require additional explanation to be usefully meaningful. Abstract thinking is a powerful tool provided to us by the human mind, but we often make incorrect abstractions in favor of our devotion to convenience. This is the root of the problem with buzzwords. Buzzwords are symbols that represent an abstraction made within a certain context containing a fixed point in time. The time and context will inevitably change while the avatar of the underlying ideas, the buzzword, is static. The ideas sometimes flip onto their backs while the buzzword remains deathly still. This is renders our terminology unhelpful, it is almost as if buzzwords and the contexts to which they are meant to apply exist at different time scales.

"Pace Layers," can't unsee.

I did some more searching; This time for new content from Jeremy Keith. I was lucky to find his presentation called The Layers of the Web on YT. In the video Jeremy discusses Stewart Brand's concept of Pace Layers. Mapping of The Web as a Platform (TWaaP?) onto the Pace Layers model was immediately clear to me, before Mr. Keith started showing how he himself had done so. We even agreed on the details. With only my initial impression at hand, I instantly mapped the whole web stack onto Pace Layers, from TCP/IP to the Javascript framework of the week. I also learned something about my own approach to web application design in that moment. The decisions I have made over the years as to the preferable way to build web stuff happened to line up nicely with TWaaP Pace Layers. Pace Layers can be considered a tool for time-based problem decomposition and visualization. I will use the Pace Layers model, since I'm now fairly obsessed with it, as one way to describe how buzzwords encourage imprecise thinking and can ultimately lead to harm, not only in the virtual realm of algorithms and data structures, but in the world of chickens and bunnies.

The bunny is made of meat. Tiny, very cute meat.

So...yeah, just assume I did all that.

Preliminary Conclusion

We are not communicating well. Some ideas are big enough that they cannot be crammed into a couple of syllables. Some ideas take a lot of damn words to explain, sometimes centuries worth of words. The means and demeanors with which we presently communicate need to be fortified with more precise meaning, not to be further diluted by vague shorthand.

This article is a work in progress, don't be mean.