At Last, a Definition of Tech-Enabled Services (and Some Other Stuff About Art)

“People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening…”
(The Sound of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel)¹

Summary. In this piece I submit a definition of the term “tech-enabled services” and an accompanying explanation for why our relationship with repeated words always follows the same tragic arc that begins in affinity and ends in meaninglessness. This is explained by the principle of “semantic satiation” whereby the cerebral energy to process a word intensifies the more times we hear it and ultimately results in a form of burnout. One way to preserve the accurate meaning of overused words is to define them when used in conversation to mitigate this tendency towards linguistic entropy.

Introduction

Pick a word, any word. Now, say it 100 times fast, and it will start to sound strange. Through repetition, the word will change from familiar to alien.

Take that same word, and ubiquitously incorporate it into everyday communication, and you will take its usefulness for granted. The word will begin to lose its precision and clarity — a victim of its own popularity. Noise. Or, potentially worse, the word may take on different meanings to different people as its indiscriminate use associates it with an ever-broadening horizon of applications. What was once a well-understood term with narrowly-defined uses descends into the chaos of a catchall…that is, unless somebody does something about it.

Every industry has its buzzwords du jour. Think about the words that, for a time, provided the appearance of awareness, knowledge, possession of privileged information, etc.² The very same words whose reference in conversation by anyone short of the most learned of subject matter experts now make you cringe. At the top of my current list is the term tech-enabled services. The graphic below offers some more of my personal favorites across eras. Disclaimer: I don’t recommend looking at it within 30 minutes of a meal.

Repetition and Andy Warhol

A word’s loss of meaning through overuse is explained by a phenomenon called semantic satiation³. When a brain cell fires, as it would upon hearing one or more discrete words, it requires increasing energy to fire each subsequent time. So, the more times you repeat (or hear, or see) a word, the more energy that is required of the brain. Ultimately, the brain succumbs to mental fatigue, and the repeated word disintegrates into unintelligible sounds⁴. Now you know why your English teacher was so focused on word variety.

In the uncanniest of coincidences, the concept of semantic satiation was developed in 1962, the very same year in which Andy Warhol released his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans work⁵. There are a number of theories surrounding Warhol’s motives for using repetition (in this piece and others), including (i) elevating the banal to something worthy of contemplation, (ii) satirizing consumerism, (iii) iconoclastically thumbing his nose at the traditional notions of artistic creativity, (iv) devaluing celebrity, and (v) that he simply liked soup. Regardless of his intent, one effect of the Warholian repetition motif is that it visually satiates our relationship with the subject matter⁶ and produces a response akin to what happens with hearing overused words⁷. Perhaps Warhol discovered that he could usurp the celebrity of his subject matter through visual satiation and redirect the attention onto himself, the artist. Maybe that’s what we’re doing with overused words — siphoning their power for our own benefit and leaving behind an empty husk.

What Tech-Enabled Services Actually Means

Is it just me⁸, or are an ever-increasing number of companies self-identifying as being tech-enabled? A trend like this is often fueled by the notion that trendy nomenclature drives increased valuations and hearkens to the not-so-distant past when everything spontaneously earned the “-as-a-service” suffix.

Companies are ravenously embracing technology with a variety of goals including facilitating the delivery of their offering and more transparently interfacing with clients. However, just because a company is leveraging technology in some fashion does not, I would suggest, automatically earn it the moniker of being tech-enabled. For example, take a commercial landscaping company that deploys route optimization software to reduce fuel costs and optimize time in the field — sorry, not a tech-enabled services business. Trees could be trimmed, and grass cut, irrespective of the existence of that software. In short, businesses whose offering could exist absent a technology they may be presently using are merely tech-enhanced, not tech-enabled, with “enabled” being the operative word.

I recognize not everyone will agree with my characterization of how tech-enabled services is defined because the use of the term has become so broad. Therein lies the problem that I’m attempting to solve, and I welcome a conversation regarding differing perspectives. So, without further ado, I submit the following definition(s):

Definition #1 Example: The private equity fund had invested in numerous ecosystem partners and was thus a tech-enabled services specialist.

Note how these definitions imply that the technology itself is what permits the existence and/or provision of the service. Without the technology platform the service could not exist. Therein lies the test of whether a service is truly tech enabled → no technology, no service.

When in doubt, please refer to the following table which will help you determine the true nature of any services-based business:

How to Preserve the Meaning of Overused Words

With great power comes great responsibility. Now armed with the actual meaning(s) of tech-enabled services, it is your duty to do the following:

  1. If you use the term in conversation, then you must define it to preserve its integrity
  2. If someone else uses the word in conversation, inquire as to their definition and offer the appropriate version proposed herein as a possible alternative⁹

Imagine a world where we are all knowingly communicating in accordance with a commonly-accepted set of definitions for the terms we encounter most. In the iconic words of John Lennon:

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the [business] world will be as one

Conclusion

Maybe Socrates was onto something when he said, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”

Stay tuned for other words for which we will propose definitions. We welcome any and all feedback — you never know, with enough time and collective effort we might even be able to crowdsource a dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary dictionary¹⁰.

Footnotes

¹Credit to Rob Rodin for developing the concept of “The Sound of Silence” in his approach to identifying and defining overused and misunderstood terms

²That is, of course, until a person with more knowledge of the subject matter came along, attempted to engage in next-level conversation about the topic and exposed ignorance. I always hate when that happens.

³The term was coined by a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii named Leon Jakobovits James (say that three times fast). It is also referred to as semantic saturation.

⁴Not all semantic satiation necessarily results in bad outcomes. For instance, SS has been integrated into the treatment of phobias to desensitize afflicted patients to their fear stimulus.

⁵The original Campbell’s Soup Cans work is pictured below. Warhol also released the Marilyn Monroe-inspired piece, Marilyn Diptych, in the same year. Incidentally, another Marilyn Monroe piece entitled Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) will be auctioned this spring by Christie’s at an asking price of $200 million. Warhol’s current auction record is $105.4 million.

Campbell’s Soup Cans, by Andy Warhol (1962)

⁶Imagine the internal debates within the Campbell’s Soup Company about whether Warhol’s decision to feature their can in his artwork was a good thing or a bad thing

⁷The paradox of the enduring fame of certain Warhol pieces despite his use of repetition and what we know about semantic satiation is headache inducing

⁸It’s not

⁹Unless the other party has already adopted your preferred definition in which case you can celebrate the arrival of what I’m calling the “semantic singularity”

¹⁰I’ll be issuing a bottle of very respectable red wine to the first person who correctly guesses the significance of the number of times I’ve used the word dictionary. Hint: the answer lies within this blog.

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Private equity investor, writer, and student of the art & science of human connection

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Mark Gartner

Mark Gartner

Private equity investor, writer, and student of the art & science of human connection

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