The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

AOL’s ‘digital prophet’ is everything wrong with Corporate America today

David Shing, AOL's "digital prophet," can see the future: It involves wowing MBAs by using the word "brands" (Youtube)

AOL is a dinosaur that prays your grandparents won't send it to an even earlier extinction by realizing they don't have to pay it for Internet anymore.

That's because over 100 percent of its profits come from the 2.3 million people who still pay it $20.86 a month for internet access that they get from somebody else now. Not exactly a sustainable business model. So it's no surprise that, even as it tries to, well, pivot into being a media company, AOL is desperately trying to divine a future where it's something more than obsolete. And that's why they have David Shing, aka "Shingy," aka AOL's self-proclaimed "digital prophet." (Although they might be better served trying to invent a time machine at this point).

He has big hair, glammed-out fingernails, and repeats the word "brands" like he's a verbally incontinent MBA. Shingy, in other words, is what a Wharton grad dressed up as an 80s rocker looks and sounds like. But, as Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker shows, he's actually a little more Dada than that. Just try to decipher this:

Next, Shingy stopped by the office of Erika Nardini, the chief marketing officer of AOL Advertising, and handed her an iPad Mini. “Wanted to show you a little brain fart I had on the plane,” he said. It was a cartoon he had drawn of a bear wearing zebra-print pants and a shirt covered in ones and zeros.
“Love it, love it, love it,” Nardini said. “I’m thinking of the bears more as a metaphor.”
“A thousand per cent,” Shingy said.

It's a metaphor alright, but for how vacuous our corporate class has become. Look at it again. It's gibberish. But then again, so is most business jargon. They use words like "disrupt," "leverage," and "space" (as in, "I'm working in the charlatan space") as verbal tics when they're afraid they don't sound important enough.

It's MBA mad libs that doesn't really say anything other than that they're part of the corporate club. And as Dan Pallotta points out in Harvard Business Review, nobody wants to be the first to admit that this is all meaningless. "There are a lot of inferiority complexes," he says, and jargon is all about "wanting to meet the threshold of what's considered intelligent business vernacular."

It's Corporate America's emperor-has-no-clothes moment, and Shingy is the one holding court. How else do you explain an apparently sentient person treating Shingy's doodle of a bear wearing a binary-code shirt as something approaching a serious point? Nobody wants to state the obvious: it's just performance art. But they buy it since Shingy dresses how buttoned-up MBAs think a tech guru should, while still talking like they do. Indeed, he says things like "I am able to find something to like in every brand once I hear their story," which is more than enough to give a sense of purpose to every brand manager—or is it ambassador?—looking for inspiration in a TED talk. But remember, no actual human being thinks this way. It's just something MBAs tell each other.

A corporate class that can't tell real ideas from ersatz ones is at least part of the reason why companies can't come up with anything to do today other than share buybacks. And that's a big part of the reason why, despite record profits, the economy is stuck in second gear with too little investment. It's no joke. Although neither is the fact that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong thinks Shingy is "an explorer of the future" who "lives in multiple worlds and interacts with multiple worlds."

Well, at least not a deliberate one.