I always wince when I see someone lament that “there are no words” to express something. Words: These are the tools humans possess, before all others, for expression. To claim that they have no power is to forsake the mutual compassion that communication affords.
And so I winced on Tuesday, upon seeing nearly identical responses to the YouTube shooting from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, on Twitter. “There are no words to describe the tragedy that occurred today,” Pichai began. Almost two hours later Wojcicki started a tweet, “There are no words to describe how horrible it was to have an active shooter @YouTube today.” Both statements went on to offer sympathy and support to the YouTube community, along with gratitude to first responders. They are nearly identical and reek of collaborative authorship by a corporate public-relations army.
It’s better, I suppose, than the “thoughts and prayers” president Trump offered, the latest application of the usual, meaningless ointment slathered on gun-violence tragedies.
Americans are used to being disappointed by the words of politicians on matters of public welfare. Lately, they are also increasingly disappointed in the actions of Silicon Valley CEOs—just ask Mark Zuckerberg, or Travis Kalanick, or Jeff Bezos. But it’s less common to be let down by tech executives’ words. This is new, and it means something: Silicon Valley is not just a massive industry, but also one of the centers of global culture. And yet, it appears to have nothing to say when that culture is attacked directly.
Just because it might be possible to compose the right words for a given feeling, event, or situation doesn’t mean it is easy to do so. Not everyone is a speaker, or a writer, and even those who pursue language as a profession aren’t very good at it. It’s hard.
There’s a name for this plight, in religion, philosophy, and literature: ineffability. The ineffable is that which cannot or should not be uttered. Sometimes ineffability is cosmic: Judaism prohibits writing or speaking the name of the Lord to distance God’s essence from His human kingdom. Other times, it is cultural: Vulgar words are ineffable for social reasons. And other times still, it is carnal: A feeling of tenderness or sorrow can well up from the gut as if to produce speech, but then evaporate.
When faced with the ineffable, it’s a cop-out to give up. To say “There are no words” isn’t the same as saying “I have no words.” At least that move would show some belly. No, there are no words makes an existential claim. What just happened cannot be processed by human cognition and transformed into artful utterance. Forget artful, even. To say “There are no words” is to say that nothing can be said. And to say that nothing can be said is to imply that nothing can be done. It is, in essence, no different than “thoughts and prayers.” It is a message laced with indifference and despair.
Pichai’s and Wojcicki’s technology-industry colleagues also offered up perfunctory tweets in response to the YouTube tragedy. “I can’t imagine what our friends at YouTube are feeling and dealing with right now. We’re here for you and your families and friends,” wrote Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (immediately followed by an admission that his platform appeared to be spreading dangerous misinformation about the incident). Tim Cook sent “sympathy and support” from Apple. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos lamented the “horrible and truly tragic day,” and wished those affected “all our very best.” Quoting Pichai’s “there are no words” quip, the Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella offered “Our hearts are with everyone at YouTube and Google today.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi likewise sent “support” and “gratitude to the heroic first responders.” Khosrowshahi was alone, among this august group, in also making an appeal to policy, even if somewhat weakly: “Another tragedy that should push us again to #EndGunViolence,” he concluded.
There is nothing wrong with these sentiments on their surface. They are what society has come to expect from its leaders in a moment of crisis. Platitudes that tick the box of necessity, carefully constructed to minimize offense. They’d cease to be necessary if, instead, those leaders said or did more substantial things later on.
Perhaps it’s the context that feels different. This act of gun violence struck Silicon Valley in its heart, on the bland, corporate campuses that house thousands of workers. The shooter, 39-year-old Nasim Aghdam, apparently had easy access to a courtyard where employees ate lunch al fresco, enjoying the largesse of tech-job perks amidst the mild, Bay Area spring. Revenge appears to have been Aghdam’s motive: After having had her YouTube-channel earnings all but eliminated after recent changes in corporate policy, she became incensed with the company. In other words, this was also an attack on Silicon Valley’s business model, the very core of its economic power.
It is a strange circumstance in which to say that nothing can be said. If a crew of teenagers from Parkland can sustain a prolonged, incisive advocacy campaign absent preparation or resources, then surely a group of billionaires and hundred-millionaires should be able to afford more than the minimum. Particularly when their own community, not to mention their wealth, might be under attack.
The concept of ineffability has been analyzed a great deal, particularly in the 20th century, when there was a surplus of despair to go around. When the philosopher Theodore Adorno wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” he meant to question the whole of culture—poetry or otherwise—that had led to the Holocaust, and to call for something new to take its place. Translators, people who struggle to find the right words between languages, sometimes talk about the impossibility of the process. Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize–winning Irish novelist and playwright, struggled endlessly with the theme. Beckett’s characters either speak little or ramble on endlessly, both tactics offering attempts to make language gain traction on the absurdity of existence. In every case, ineffability drives action rather than shrugs. To face the feeling that nothing can be said entails the conviction to say something anyway. And not just anything, either, but something worthy of the void where muteness and taboo flourish.
It feels profane to suggest that the craftwork of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and CEOs might have replaced the role of literature, philosophy, and religion. But it’s not an overstatement, not entirely. Mark Zuckerberg, emperor of a technologized global community, has become an accidental political philosopher. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the information gods, play at epistemology. Jeff Bezos is the new ontologist, promising that people, recast as consumers, can find and discover anything. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, accidental literary theorist, reinvents poetry as an endless stream of largely angry quips. Travis Kalanick, who melted jobs into flex work at Uber, became gig work’s leading economist.
These are not just the new kings of industry. They are also the new captains of culture. The least they could do is to have something to say about it.