Dive/Drill Down

Someone who read the earlier essays in this series wrote us to comment on the burgeoning popularity of the term DIVES, an expression the reader described as a “corporate buzz-word for auditing (deep) and surveying (shallow).”

That was in 2003, by which time the expressions DEEP and SHALLOW DIVE were beginning to turn up well outside the civic world’s accounting and auditing departments. Little by little, nonprofit organizations — especially those engaged in research and public policy — were beginning to conduct “deep dives,” apparently in hopes of surfacing sub-oceanic layers of sunken truth beneath every murky topic.

Here’s a case of a metaphor rich with unintended meaning. The consequence of any dive is that you end up soaking your head. The consequence of a shallow dive is bound to be far worse. I’m no accountant, but I would have thought that, in the world of business, the whole idea of taking a dive would be considered regrettable. Paying experts to help you do so would thus seem doubly ill-advised. We all know of a few enterprising companies that managed to dive without any professional assistance whatsoever. Several, of course, did pay handsomely for the privilege. Either way, shouldn’t people who labor all day in pursuit of the public good be able to do so with their heads held safely above water?

I feel obliged, in this context, to bring up the related expression to DRILL DOWN. Like the DEEP DIVE, this oil-industry metaphor is meant to invoke a search for buried treasure — in this case through the penetrating intelligence of the analyst’s drill-bit mind. “The proposal becomes less attractive,” says a policy institute about some employment plan, “when we drill down to the funding and administrative implications.” “This report,” promises another organization, “drills down into the common approaches to universal health care coverage for children.” The main problem with both the diving and drilling metaphors is their unearned claims of profundity. The ordinary expressions “take a close look,” “examine carefully,” or “perform a detailed analysis” say the same things, but without brashly suggesting that one is piercing geological layers or plumbing the salty deep. Those are simply not claims that writers are well advised to make for themselves. The reader, not the writer, should be the one to determine whether one’s work is truly deep, penetrating, profound, or groundbreaking. To claim such things for oneself is just asking for trouble.

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