To bend towards equity (equitable enterprise), we need to shift into a new register, a new habit of speech. We need to cultivate an awareness of how our habits of speech inform our habits of action, recognize the register we’ve inhabited up till now old, and become fluent in a new one.
I can recall, nearly to the day, the first time I heard the word architect used as a verb. It was August 1999. I had just joined a young firm in the nascent space of interactive media design. At that time, a website was not something you designed — not if you aspired to charge six figures for the work in question — it was something you architected. You did not ask developers if it might be possible to reuse software from a previous project — you asked if it might be possible to repurpose that software. Even my use of space — “the nascent space of interactive media design” — represents an innovation from that time and place, one that has, over time, come to sound natural.
In the years since my first encounter with architect (v), we have all come to be familiar with the repertoire of distinctive features available in online speech. These include typographic features — use of line breaks, capitalization, punctuation, abbreviations, emphasis, emoji, etc — along with linguistic habits: omission of articles and pronouns, forms of address (hi all, hey guys, @- vocatives), interjections and backchanneling (lol, omg, smh, :thumbsup:), uptalk (good luck??). In isolation, devices of this sort tell us little. But rarely do we encounter them in isolation. Instead, we find them working in concert to evoke a style distinctive to an individual, a community, or a medium.
Perhaps because it so often plays out in “glyphic media” — that is, writing — where we can review a conversation verbatim long after the fact, online speech has sharpened our awareness of the phenomenon linguistic anthropologists refer to as register. Many readers would have no trouble identifying samples of speech from different places as the products of distinct speech communities. They’d even be able to offer hypotheses about the distinguishing characteristics of participants in these communities — gender, age, background, politics.
How You Speak Serves as a Badge of Who You Are
This is what makes registers interesting: it is not simply that habits of usage coalesce into repertoires and that these repertoires function as signatures of the speech of a particular community but that these repertoires come to refer to distinct social perspectives. Fluent use of a register, in turn, serves as a marker,
sometimes erroneous, of speakers’ attitude toward the perspective associated with that register. The linguistic anthropologist Asif Agha has characterized registers as “cultural models of action that link diverse behavioral signs to enactable effects, including images of persona, interpersonal relationship, and type of conduct” (Agha 2007, 145). That is: how you speak comes to serve as a badge of who you are. When we use TikTok, say, we become a particular kind of person, the TikTok user.
Joining a community is in no small part a matter of learning to use the speech register associated with that community. This is of course true of registers that typify broad social formations, as, in English, with RP (“Received Pronunciation”) English (you can probably hear it in your head — “The fah led to a loss of pah across the Inland Empah”) or African-American English. But it is equally true of the registers that characterize particular media environments and professional communities. And competence in a register is characterized by an asymmetry between recognition and use: chances are there are many registers you could identify if you overheard them in use but just a handful you could use as media of everyday speech. Making the transition from recognition competence to speaking competence is the essence of socialization.
How a Culture of Audit Infected the Working World
Some of the distinctive features of the register I acquired, during my first couple months in the interactive media “space,” were inherited from the register then current among management consultants. In part this reflects the fact that many early participants in the interactive media scene came from management consulting. But in part it reflects something deeper: how a particular managerial ethos, a culture of audit, was coming to infect the world of work.
My experience was far from unique. In her 2020 Uncanny Valley, the journalist Anna Wiener draws attention to the prominent role that “garbage language” — the term is hers — played in the Silicon Valley startup scene when she worked there. By garbage language Wiener has in mind verbal formulae that resist parsing into everyday speech — usages that exist to serve as flexible receptacles for a variety of interpretations while marking their users as members of a privileged class. Examples include “level-set, “parallel-path,” “operationalize,” and “touchpoint.” See this 2020 Vulture article for more examples.)
A surprising proportion of the garbage language we tend to encounter in the world of “knowledge work” (what work is not, in the end, a matter of knowledge?) concerns concepts like responsibility, accountability, and transparency — concepts central to what I’ve referred to as a culture of audit.
The clearest description of the culture of audit comes from philosopher Thi Nguyen, who sees efforts to transfer trust from actors to institutions as one dimension of a broader crisis of trust. Again, the university offers a focal case. “In the governance techniques of modern universities,” Nguyen writes, “departments are expected to perform ‘assessment.’”
Some assessment techniques involve oversight of one department’s outcomes by another department. One philosophy department might, say, send writing samples from its students to a member of a different philosophy department — who would rate those samples on their clarity and acumen. This is a form of expert transparency. Such expert transparency might satisfy one kind of worry: if we trusted the profession of philosophers in general, we could use one philosophy department to check if another one had gone off the rails.
“But,” Nguyen continues, expert assessment “will not satisfy a broader worry — that of, say, a state legislator who suspects that all philosophy is bullshit.” In response, universities have shifted to metrics that leave less room for the situated — that is, context-sensitive — exercise of discretion: graduation rates, graduate salaries.
[S]uch measures, Nguyen continues, … don’t track what most philosophy professors probably care about: teaching critical thinking skills; cultivating intellectual virtues such as reflectiveness, intellectual humility, and curiosity. This is by design. Recognizing the successful cultivation of those virtues is a matter of some expertise. Depending on that mode of assessment would put the process of evaluation of a department outside the full understanding of non-experts. It would force the non-experts to trust. In order to eliminate the need for trust, we need to find an evaluative mechanism whose workings are entirely available to non experts.
A decline of trust in expertise animates the developments that Nguyen points to. But as the culture of audit has expanded, it has come to pervade not only our attitudes toward expertise but our attitudes toward our own comportment. We have internalized the figure of the Administrator, giving rise to what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in a prescient essay of 1990, referred to as a society of control (Deleuze 1992; Fourcade and Healy 2021; Rosa 2020).
In the society of control, there is no room for the individual to exercise situated discretion. And it is the exercise of discretion, guided by firsthand experience of a complex environment that resists reduction to the non-expert measures alluded to by Nguyen, that gives people a sense of autonomy in their work, not to say a feeling of being invested in it. If your role is one of the mechanical application of rubrics devised by others, you have no cause to feel anything but the most mechanical attitude toward what you do. It is when you have the autonomy to make decisions based on your own experience of your working environment that you begin to feel you have a stake in the outcomes of those decisions.Situated discretion is the glue that binds individuals together in a cooperative enterprise.
In small doses, the rote application of fixed standards can serve as a scaffold for the exercise of discretion — as a corrective to entrenched biases, say, of race or gender. But when audit comes to supplant discretion, it has the effect of exacerbating the erosion of trust that is often invoked as the reason we need audit. Today, lacking trust either in members of communities of skilled practice (doctors, professors, engineers) or in the institutions that ratify and uphold those communities (universities, governments), we have entered an era of charismatic trust — in which your reliability as a witness to events hinges on the the fantasies your audience has constructed about the personal relationship they imagine they have with you. The effects of charismatic trust can be seen in recent US elections.
Cultivating a Culture of Situated Discretion
In an essay of 1977, the ecologist Daniel Janzen proposed a figure–ground inversion in how we view the “individual” in a population of dandelions.
Instead of viewing the set of short-lived dandelion plants in a habitat as a many-membered population with a very high growth rate, I suggest a quite different view. I suggest that the dandelion population contains a small number of highly subdivided EIs [evolutionary individuals] with very long lives and very low population growth rates and which exist through the harvest of a highly predictable resource.
The dandelion, Janzen writes, “is a very large tree with no investment in trunk, major branches, or perennial roots” — the individual dandelions are but ramets, contingently detached branches, of a single living thing (Janzen 1977).
Janzen’s essay anticipates what has become an extensive literature in evolutionary transitions and multilevel selection. Janzen’s essay, “What Are Dandelions and Aphids?”, demonstrates the value of a change in the language we use to describe some phenomenon, in this case by characterizing the dandelion clone as a “tree” and so underscoring, in our habits of thinking, its evolutionary unity. Reading Janzen’s essay in light of the rapid and remarkable reorganization of evolutionary theory that followed, I am given to wonder what small changes we might make in the register that governs our own working lives so as to foster a new era of trust, cooperation, and equitability.
Unmaking the culture of audit and establishing in its place a culture of situated discretion is a long-term project. Alas, it is not a matter simply of changing the language we use to talk about work. But a shift in register has a role to play. I cannot provide a list of the distinctive features of the speech registers you’d encounter in environments that foster situated discretion. What I can do is encourage you to attend to the differences in your own habits of speech in situations where you experience a feeling of mastery, autonomy, and responsibility — and in those where your role feels more mechanical. Start small: perhaps there is something you regularly do, be it making lunch for your kids or deadlifting or listening to a friend fall apart, where, by dint of long effort, you’ve come to feel a certain craft mastery. How do you talk about these things? How does it differ from how you talk about activities where you lack the autonomy to exercise judgment? Focus not just on the words you use but on the quality of the sounds — are your changes of pitch open and spacious (e.g., pentatonic) or closed-off (e.g. chromatic)? Focus on phrase-level syntax: where are you more likely to use constructions that specify the cause of some action? Where are you more likely to use constructions that elide cause, that make it seem as if things have “simply happened”?
A world where everyone feels engaged, where everyone has the sense they are contributing to a collective purpose that precedes and exceeds them and that will continue when they are gone, begins with the ordinary experience of autonomy to exercise discretion based on your awareness of local conditions. This ordinary experience — this culture of situated discretion — is fundamentally about what kinds of people we want to become and the habits of speech we want to inhabit.
Agha, Asif. 2007. Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59: 3–7.
Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. 2021. Rationalized Stratification. In Grusky, Dahir, and Daviss, eds, Social Stratification, 5/e. London: Routledge.
Janzen, Daniel. 1977. What Are Dandelions and Aphids? American Naturalist 111(979): 586–589.
Nguyen, C. Thi. 2022. Transparency Is Surveillance. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, to appear. https://doi.org/10.1111/phpr.12823
Rosa, Hartmut. 2020. The Uncontrollability of the World. London: Polity. Wiener, Anna. 2020. Uncanny Valley. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.