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This Could Revolutionize That

Why is the media so dazed by Silicon Valley’s sparkles of novelty?

I used to come up with headlines for the digital publication—the glorified blog—of a marketing startup. We wanted the blog to be read by decision makers like CEOs, CTOs, and other CXOs—the X being a placeholder for a word with no corporeality, much less suitability in a job title, like Happiness or Freedom—at deep-pocketed, tech-savvy companies. In search of the tricks of the headline writing trade, I analyzed the publications I knew those people read. TechCrunch. Fortune. Inc. Bloomberg. Engadget. The Harvard Business Review.

I did not learn much. All I got was a metaphorical lungful of secondhand carcinogens from the smoke blown up Silicon Valley’s ass in nearly every tech headline I encountered. Nothing exemplified the weird symbiosis between tech and its media coverage more than the egregiously overused phrase could revolutionize, as in “Blockchain could revolutionize insurance” or “Ultra-sticky film that unfolds like paper snowflakes could revolutionize everything from bandages to wearable electronics.”

Hyperbolic language is nothing new in Silicon Valley, of course. But could revolutionize presents the tech media at its worst.

Google tells me that between 2000 and 2010, could revolutionize appeared on indexable websites fewer than fourteen thousand times. Since then, it’s seen what venture capitalists might call hockey-stick growth, increasing from six thousand instances in 2011 to thirteen thousand in 2014 to thirty thousand in 2017. Four months into 2018, could revolutionize has appeared on the internet nearly twenty thousand times. It’s possible that the sharp spike in popularity of could revolutionize mirrors Silicon Valley’s ascension in our collective consciousness. But which is the chicken, and which is the egg?

Silicon Valley is, obviously, synonymous with technology, which begets and is begat by money, itself a product of the forever-propagating mythology that the products created by the Valley’s innovators are going to change the world for the better. Or, at least, that if you keep a bunch of engineers in an open-layout workspace for a long enough period of time—an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of Sublime editors—they’ll create something approaching the Hamlet of code.

This is the chimera of Silicon Valley. And the credulous tech media’s reliance on employing could revolutionize in headlines is as revealing of that illusion as it is damning of the press itself. Invariably, when a product, company, or mere abstract idea—Uber, but for death!—is released, tech headlines hail it as revolutionary, an innovation that could upheave an industry. (Novelty sparkles, and Silicon Valley likes things that are sparkly.) By the time that proclamation hasn’t come true, however, no one notices, having moved on to the next game changer. The never-flat wheels of tech and time keep turning in tandem.

Hyperbolic language is nothing new in Silicon Valley, of course. But could revolutionize presents the tech media at its worst. The phrase’s juxtaposition of two contrasting words—could implies a distinct possibility of something not happening, while revolutionize means the strongest possible version of a change to something’s fundamental nature—is manipulative. No one clicks a headline that reads, “X might make an impact on Y,” no matter how intriguing the X or culturally relevant the Y. But could revolutionize is an enabler, a gateway drug into the world of false hope, hedging, and bright-eyed optimism that cyclically drive Silicon Valley into a frenzy. When could revolutionize is used in a headline, the article automatically falls Connect Four-style into one of two categories: a tepid argument for X’s tenable but ultimately minor effect on Y, or a fawning quasi-press release. Recent appearances of could revolutionize throw into sharp relief the obsequious, hype-building language the tech media uses to prop up the very industry it’s meant to critically dismantle:

  • In a Fast Company video titled, “These Glasses Could Revolutionize the Workforce,” the CEO of a company with a financial stake in that prophecy coming true is generously given ninety seconds on-camera to explain his product’s “use case.”
  • Wired claims, “AI Could Revolutionize War as Much as Nukes,” though it’s hard to imagine anything short of an AI-controlled nuclear weapon instantly killing the entire population of Ann Arbor. And per the Harvard study the article cites, “Future progress in AI has the potential to be a transformative national security technology, on a par with nuclear weapons.” Note the stacked uncertainty of future progress and potential—we’re approaching Platonic levels of mimetic change, twice removed from reality.
  • A VentureBeat headline argues, “Visual search products like Google Lens could revolutionize online shopping”—a strong claim! But the article itself cites “general e-commerce purposes” as the products’ “overwhelmingly obvious use case”—weaker, to be sure. It goes on to argue how “visual search could help a user find a new pair of boots or a new sofa, and how”—and here, the shark gets jumped—“this translates into a new era of search for the consumer.” The writer is employed by Google, a fact revealed in small italicized font at the foot of the article and by a light gray header tag of GUEST, for all the readers who take note of online articles’ categorizations.
  • A Next Web headline reads, “How Bitcoin could revolutionize remittance in Africa.” The article supports its thesis with paragraph-length quotes from CEO of a Bitcoin remittance firm, the CEO of a Bitcoin exchange, and the founder of another Bitcoin exchange that later gained notoriety for owing investors “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
  • According to Gizmodo, things that could revolutionize other things include a wild-ape vaccine, a “period” in a dish, an artificial womb, and MIT; according to Mashable, the same goes for circular runways, a paper airplane, and, predictably, a new startup.
  • The phrase also appears often in headlines from tech blogs like Futurism and Chief Innovation Officer, whose coverage of Silicon Valley is feverishly unwary.

One might argue that the indiscriminate use of could revolutionize has made the phrase meaningless. Isn’t it just an annoying tech-media crutch? But for a majority of people—those who aren’t steeped in the embellishing language of TechCrunch or tech Twitter, people who might take a headline’s bold proclamation at face value—it’s actively dangerous. Wow, a truly revolutionary product! A few weeks or days later, a similarly grandiose, laudatory headline pops up in their Facebook feed. Their association between innovation and a certain strip of land in northern California grows stronger, and Silicon Valley’s glittering, world-changing mythology grows larger, induced by a Panglossian evangelism that needs neither church nor pastor with a microphone. It has the media.