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Why I hate “talent”

Reading about work in the computing industry and startups more generally, I often hear about organisations looking for “talent”. The word makes me shudder and here I want to explore why.

Part of it is an instinctive distrust of neologisms and the people who use them: I imagine people latching on to new terms for old concepts thinking of themselves as very hip and up-to-minute—but being unwilling or unable to engage with what has gone before really just shows ignorance. Educational fads are an egregious example I’ve written about elsewhere.

More relevant to this blog, however, is the sense that “talent” describes a commodity, with the human being possessing it being only incidental. Whenever I read or hear the word, I imagine myself as the input to a factory, undifferentiated from the computer chips, electricity, and so on, that also go into making software.

I don’t suppose that people who use the term mean to describe an undifferentiated mass of “talent” fed into a software production facility; at least they surely wouldn’t say so if asked. They’re just thinking about what their organisation needs (inputs to software production) and describing it with hip new words instead of daggy old words like “workers” or “engineers”. Nonetheless, using the term “talent” detached from the human being who provides it seems to me to frame the possessors of talent as inputs to production rather than the members of a society for whom the production is ultimately for—not to mention quite at odds with the views of those who contend that work gives us meaning.

Talk of talent as an undifferentiated mass also renders the word somewhat meaningless: saying that an organisation seeks “talent” says nothing about whether the organisation needs engineers, or cleaners, or artists, or nurses, or any of a thousand other professions that require skill and diligence to carry out well. Like one of my other pet hates—using “creative” as a noun—”talent” tries to conjure images of someone doing something cool while avoiding the issue of what it actually is.

Daft terminology is a hard thing to stop: witness the triumph of “social distancing” over the more accurate and less sinister “physical distancing” despite plenty of people pointing out the flaws in the former, and the innumerable political slogans that capture public discussion through sheer repetition. But keeping track of it all is a topic for a whole other blog.

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