Search engines: Second site - The curse of the networking classes

THERE ARE two kinds of new media jargon. Technical talk means something, albeit only to engineers, and is therefore forgivable. Business babble means nothing, or at best less than it claims. Irredeemably pretentious, with its grandiose talk of "portals" (Web pages with links on them) and "business models" (ideas, however slender, which might conceivably make some money), it has become the greatest barrier to public understanding of the Net and the digital economy.

On the other hand, it does generate a reliable supply of exotic quotes to marvel at and to mock. The best cure I know for over-exposure to weasel Web words is homeopathic. Leave your details at Ditherati.com, and you will receive a daily e-mail containing a choice quote from a member of the "digerati", framed by a headline and a brief but barbed caption.

Ditherati was launched two years ago by Owen Thomas, who works as an editor at Time magazine's Time Digital section. He declares his purpose on Ditherati's "subtext" page: "As technology wars move from product to propaganda, and CEOs like Scott McNealy (of Microsystems) describe their responsibilities solely as being "quote machines" for the press, Ditherati intends to throw a wrench or two in the works."

The wrenches are of the ditherati's own making, and Scott McNealy has certainly forged one or two almighty clankers in his time. As well as the Blurt of the Year, "You have zero privacy anyway; get over it", the Ditherati files also include McNealy's intriguing claim that "An automobile is just a Java browser with tyres." This statement that defies the reader to stare at it until some sort of meaning eventually pops out - perhaps in the form of a general principle: "A dishwasher is just an e-mail package with rinse aid", and so on.

Mc Nealy's take on the motor car is less eccentric when one considers the digerati's apparently widespread concern about whether we should talk to household appliances. Other lines forwarded by Ditherati include Intel chairman, Andy Grove's announcement, "I'm of the belief that you don't want to talk to your refrigerator." Conversely, observes Mitchell Kertzman of Liberate Technologies, "nobody wants a phone that toasts bread". Indeed not. But nobody at the cutting edge of technology wants a phone for talking to other people either, according to a BellSouth technologist called Stephen Blust. "Phones are no longer being viewed as a voice device," he reveals. "An infocentric appliance is where I'd like to take them."

Blust's command of syntax is typical of the networking classes. Combined with a limited but esoteric vocabulary, the effect on comprehension can be devastating. Thus John McCoy, head of an Internet bank called Wingspan: "We've got pro formas up the ying-yang, but how do you know, because you've never done it before?" It hardly inspires the kind of confidence we expect from bankers' statements. Imagine what would happen to the pound if Eddie George emerged from a meeting with Gordon Brown and announced he had pro formas up the ying-yang.

Some of the digerati's stumbles are the kind everybody makes from time to time. You can tell what Microsoft's Steve Ballmer meant to say when he announced that "We are going to do fewer things very well." But these are people whose products are based on their ability to think precisely. If they can write computer code, they ought to be able to state simple ideas in grammatical sentences. Or perhaps the digerati's garbled utterances are a clue as to why software contains so many lines of code and so many bugs.

You can visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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