Keywords for the Age of Austerity 20: Pivot

In the first season of Silicon Valley, the HBO sitcom that poked (gentle, but often hilarious) fun at tech-industry and creative-class myth-making, the vest-wearing, number-crunching technocrat Jared is kidnapped by a malfunctioning self-driving car belonging to the show’s tech mogul villain. Jared eventually escapes and makes it home in the midst of a crisis for his startup, Pied Piper. Sleep deprived and manic, he sets out to save the company with a “pivot.” He reassures his colleagues that many successful companies rebranded themselves early on in order to survive: Chatroulette, he explains, began as a social media platform but then pivoted to “become a playground for the sexually monstrous.”

As Jared explains, the basic technology his group has developed will remain the same–the “pivot” only changes how they market it to outsiders. As Jared’s suggestions become increasingly flat-footed and desperate, we see that the normally straight-laced numbers man is so traumatized by his desperation to “pivot” that he becomes nearly monstrous himself: he has no interest in what Pied Piper develops, as long as it develops anything marketable (aps for rat-detection and child-stalking are two of his ideas).

The season ultimately ends with a conventional tribute to to “going your own way,” as the coder-heroes innovate their way out of their dilemma by improving their original product. Nevertheless, the episode satirizes “pivoting’s” pretensions to both corporate “agility” and statesman-like strength–see, for an especially tedious example of the former, the Obama “pivot to Asia.” (The irony was lost on some writers who read Silicon Valley as an ode to “pivoting,” which is the power of “creative thinking, flexibility and perspective. Essentially, when life gives you lemons, just pivot.”)

The “pivot” contains a conflict inherent in many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and 2) acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market (the “nimble” organization that turns on a dime, or in response to a trend). This may not be a contradiction for those for whom “the market” is an omnipresent, eternal force, a mystical object of entrepeneurial devotion, rather than a political instrument and historical notion. So in so many of the keywords I have examined thus far, the training of one’s entrepreneurial attitudes goes hand-in-hand with the shaping of one’s body by the disciplining austerity of the marketplace.

For anyone else, the proliferation of bodily metaphors in economic writing—nimble, agile, flexible, robust, even “austerity” itself–reveals both the naturalization of market logic, which is in our very bones and muscles, but also, sometimes, the cruelty it can inflict on those who labor. As I wrote in the entry on “flexibility,” workers exhorted to be more “flexible” are required to stretch themselves further and further, sacrificing their family life, health, and happiness for their job. “Pivot” is a peculiar example of economic body talk because it is the most nonsensical: we can see why a corporation or an employee fearful of layoffs might want to be “nimble,” leaping and springing gymnastically to meet every need, but pivoting is all about constraints on movement. A person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary; in basketball, of course, you can’t move the “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. (Are “pivots” always in Asia? Or only on islands, like Cuba, site of Obama’s newest pivot?). Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on the French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were, like “nimble,” mostly found in the sports section. Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AMIts recent explosion in political journalism is seemingly borrowed from business jargon, where as Jared shows it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wrote Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–he appears to be a pioneer here–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. I suspect political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for complex economic and political processes. My favorite case in point comes from Fast Company, which never met a superficial category that it didn’t love and therefore has a whole column called “The Pivot.” Detroit’s bankruptcy, it turns out, was a “pivot.” (Snoop Dogg’s transformation into Snoop Lion? A pivot. Obama’s 2012 reelection as president, er, “Pivoter-in-Chief?” You guessed it. The column writes itself.)

The tech world has a word for Detroit‘s bankruptcy filing yesterday, and it’s not fiasco, fatal, or doomsday. It’s pivot. If something fundamental isn’t working—the business model, the core technology—you make a dramatic change, despite the risk and short-term pain. It’s a gambit for the long-term survival of the enterprise.

The article is a particularly tone deaf but not exceptional account of the bankruptcy as a clean start, a clearing of accounts and a break from older “mismanagement” and “corruption” (why a municipal bankruptcy overseen by banks and political appointees would be logically more competent and less corrupt than normal city business is never explained). Many “serious” journalists described the bankruptcy in this basically moralistic way, perhaps because the actual legal process was too byzantine to assess it any other waygiphy.

The Fast Company author’s examples–a few entrepreneur profiles, some Dan Gilbert puffery, etc.–are par for the course. The “pivot,” which claims to be so substantial, is really just a clumsy illusion: turning around in a circle, shouting “Ta-da!” and hoping nobody notices.

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