Keywords for the Age of Austerity 27: Synergy

Synergy, n: 1) Joint action, cooperation; esp. (Theol.) cooperation between human will and divine grace in the work of regeneration. 2) Any interaction or cooperation which is mutually reinforcing; a dynamic, productive, or profitable affinity, association, or link.

Yea, there should be a Synergie, and conspiration of all Arts and Sciences to advance Theology, which makes the better Part of us happy. 

–George Thomson, Galeno-pale, or, A chymical trial of the Galenists, that their dross in physick may be discovered with the grand abuses and disrepute they have brought upon the whole art of physick and chirurgery, 1665

It’s not real…it’s an illusion!

–Jem, 1985

My most recent rejection letter regretted to inform me that due to a large number of applications, the selection committee was forced to place “a premium on intellectual synergies.”

The form-letter writers used the plural form of a noun whose use in business circles peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Synergies,” is often a precious version of “sympathies” or “compatibility.” “Synergy,” in the singular, meant something more grandiose: organizational harmony, efficiency, the achievement of a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Now, however, “synergy” regularly appears on listicles about buzzwords to avoid—one consultant interviewed by Forbes complained that “it never fails to make me think of my wife’s childhood obsession with Jem and the Holograms.” Let us follow this thread for a moment.


Mild-mannered Jerrica, as you may recall, turned into Jem via a powerful Holographic machine/talking computer named Synergy. Synergy described herself as “the ultimate audiovisual synthesizer” with the power to project realistic holograms onto physical objects. With just a tug on her earring (which was actually a miniature remote holographic projector) Synergy could project the image of Jem and the Holograms onto Jerrica and her otherwise square friends. All she had to do was say, “Showtime, Synergy!” Watch as Jerrica meets Synergy for the first time.

“It’s not real…it’s an illusion!”

Jem’s Dad’s invention’s synthesis of the aural and visual field hits on the fanciful, even utopian connotations once carried by the word before it became a buzzword in mergers and acquisitions. The word’s common definition, according to the OED, is “any interaction or cooperation which is mutually reinforcing,” like Jem and her Holograms. By contrast, the Misfits, the Holograms’ archenemy, were often undone by the rifts in their organization between ruthless rich girl Pizzazz and Stormer, who Wikipedia refers to as the “sensitive keytar player” (is there any other kind?) who lacked the killer instinct to destroy her rival group.

Most early uses of “synergy” were biological, referring to the coordinated action driving animal bodies, cells, and organs. The “synergy” of human gestation was an especially common usage, which takes on added significance given that Jerrica’s dad programs Synergy with her deceased mother’s voice and likeness, as Renee Angle notes. Synergy’s other meaning is theological, much like “innovation.”: “synergy” in a Protestant sense referred to “cooperation between human will and divine grace.” If innovation once referred negatively to the hubris of self-appointed prophets who claimed to speak God’s will, “synergy” was its humble, virtuous opposite: the co-partnership of human and divine effort, God’s collaboration with us.

The word came into wider use in the 20th century via Lester Ward, an ex-botanist and paleontologist who became the first president of the American Sociological Association. A self-taught disciple of the positivist thinker Auguste Comte, he coined “synergy” to describe a governing principle of all social structure. Synergy, wrote Ward, was the dynamic clash of opposing forces in nature, as well as human social structures. (In 1905, bored with his work at the Smithsonian, he wrote to the president of Brown University to inquire about the possibility of teaching sociology there. Brown’s president apparently said “sure.” In this era of the academic job market, intellectual synergies were easier to come by.)

Like many of today’s entrepreneurship-and-innovation hucksters, who hunt for validations of contemporary business cant in history and the natural world, Ward saw synergy as a biological principle that also governed social life. Ward’s descendants are writers like Steven Johnson, a bestselling author in the popular-science-cum-business-advice genre. In books like Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he argues that there are seven typologies for optimal, innovation-friendly environments, which can be observed across nature and across time (in order to understand where good ideas come from, Johnson writes, “we have to put them in context.” At the same time, evolutionary “innovation” in a coral reef and the diffusion of ideas on the Internet are analogous concepts. So much for context.) Or Bill O’Connor of the Innovation Genome Project, an organization whose name also suggests a biological drive to “innovate.” In all of human history, says O’Connor, there have only been seven kinds of questions that have driven all innovations. Only seven. (The sacramental number seven is popular in this genre, suggesting that there may be cultural, rather than scientific, forces at work here.)

Synergy’s first real vogue, though, came in the 1960s: one of its earliest appearances in the US media came in a 1966 New Yorker profile of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s utopian, eccentric projects—the Dymaxion car, the geodesic dome—came from a modernist conviction that technological advances could render obsolete the social problems of penury and waste. We could, in effect, engineer our way out of inequality and war. Synergy, or what he called “synergetics,” was the science and faith of this conviction. The example Fuller gave the reporter in his profile was chromium-nickel-iron alloys, which together held up against much more intense heat than their constitutive elements could have done. This “invisible pattern” was synergy, “a term,” the author explained, “that can be defined as the behavior of whole systems in ways unpredictable by the individual behavior of their sub-systems.”

There was thus a degree of serendipity in these unpredictable, invisible patterns yet to reveal themselves. And the social possibilities they might allow were just as consequential. Alloy steel’s resistance to heat made it very popular for the twentieth-century war machine, Fuller lamented. But if this synergy were applied not to weaponry, but to housing and education—what Fuller called “livingry”—it could work wonders. As the New Yorker put it with now-quaint confidence: “the shift of industry to the new invisible base has brought about such spectacular gains in over-all efficiency, such demonstrated ability to produce more and more goods and services from fewer and fewer resources, that mankind as a whole has inevitably profited.”

Synergy gained further currency in the work of Abraham Maslow, the organizational psychologist who used it to describe the ideal state in which the interests of an employee and his boss are harmonized at work. Borrowing the term from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Maslow defined synergy as

the social-institutional arrangements which fuse selfishness and unselfishness, by transcending their oppositeness and polarity so that the dichotomy between selfishness and altruism is resolved and transcended and formed into a new higher unity.

Here, we might once again call upon Jerrica’s holographic alter ego to point out that workplace synergy, as Maslow describes is here, is fundamentally not real life. “Synergy” is more often just a mask.

What is it hiding in business jargon? Mergers are thought be bring synergy (or “synergies”) to companies that on their own lack economies of scale or product they would gain in a merged firm. Maslow’s “higher unity” ideal was already rolling eyes in 1989, when Steve Lohr in the New York Times quoted a McKinsey executive: “synergy in most cases is another name for head-count reductions.” (“Head-count reductions,” of course, is another name for “you’re fired.”)

This is where “synergy” enters the austerity lexicon of today’s economy. Unlike “lean,” “flexible,” and “nimble” management, which are ways of dressing up the vulnerability and disposability of workers in a language of efficiency, “synergy” dresses up the vulnerability of executives in a language of unity. For this reason, its exuberant usage was always defensive, tinged with a bit of dread. It’s a dread displaced by that Forbes consultant onto his wife’s childhood cartoon obsession. One anonymous investor in 1989 put it this way: ‘All this management gobbledygook is to mask the real issue,” he said, “which is that these companies are afraid of being taken over by someone who will get rid of the current crop of executives.”

Showtime, synergy!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s