Language is often used as a tool of gatekeeping. If you want to make someone feel uncomfortable and out of place, try placing them inside an event of an industry they’re not familiar with. The amount of words that have alternative meanings inside a professional group will often be staggering and (depending on the offender) full sentences might make little sense beyond the obvious syntactical structure of the language.

Who hasn’t been confused every now and then when joining a new company, group or industry and the “insiders” start throwing acronyms, metaphors and terms which you don’t understand?

Create Data Moat MVP of an API - Photo by Austin Diestel, mod by me.

I often find the naming of things to exist partially as an effort to exclude outsiders from the understanding of how things work in an inside group.

Why does this happen and why does it happen so much inside tech? I have here some thought about this.

Some of the reasons to do that are obvious (create shared experience with like minded people, “elevate” what one does to make it look more important) and some others might be less obvious but potentially more interesting (mask the truth about a function, get out of potentially disadvantageous situations, minimize a harmful situation).

In the tech world, names of mythical creatures are often used as metaphors to explain or shorthand people, companies and phenomena.  I don’t know the story behind why this happens but I’d assume it has something to do with the interest many people inside the tech community have in fantasy, mythology and sci-fi.

Case in point, a unicorn is a rare creature that represents a company which reaches a valuation of over $/€1 billion, often on the back of venture capital money and often without taking into account the amount of money invested on it. Another interesting term (which I first saw in the book “How to speak machine” by John Maeda) was the term centaur, speaking about a new breed of human workers who collaborate with machines (AI systems) to create outcomes that neither could do entirely by themselves, such as a designer (the human head) selecting app layout variations from a grid of options generated by a (workhorse like body) layout generation AI.

The interesting thing about these types of language is that by being evocative they can (and often do) serve as inspiration for people outside tech to imagine tech workers, companies and tools as existing in an alternative fantasy land where the world operates in a fundamentally different way.  It also lets tech workers imagine themselves as separated from the rest of society and working in a space where their creations can exist within mythical proportions.

This creates a gap between tech creators (the centaurs, unicorns, ninjas and jedis of the tech world) and tech consumers (everybody with a smartphone, anybody who uses the internet) that makes for a two-class system inside steering the direction of the future and influencing it. “Voting with your feet” or “letting the market decide” isn’t an option if you’re not aware that an option or alternatives exist. Language has a capability of alienating people and excluding them from the conversation. The terminology for some non-technical things in tech is exclusionary and this just keeps more people away from technology.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. However, thinking about the power that some digital tech companies have over the modern world and the halo effect that this imparts on people who work in tech I can’t help to associate this mythical terminology to a sense of self importance, power and exclusion.

What type of language could people working in technology invent to make our inventions and work processes clearer and easier to understand for the general public? What if instead of obfuscating what we do behind complicated language we would instead try to find metaphors and images that explain in a snappy and fun way concepts of our work? Let’s invite everybody to the part by trying to be more inclusive in the way we speak.