The Forsaken Art of Pedagogy

When understanding what you mean becomes someone else's problem

Unless, like me, you gravitate to a more Bohemian work ethic, i.e. loitering in cafés with a fountain pen and a lukewarm Yirgacheffe, you might otherwise be E-namoured to stroke a beloved iPad or laptop, power-sipping your super-heated double-whip frappachinato sprinkled with healing beads and a shot of Viagra (to go). You might also be cut off from the world by a sensory deprivation headpiece that's blasting non-descript pop music, as you multitask a number of chat room conversations along side working on some code. If you fall into this category, you probably belong to a growing generation of data-heads that doesn't much care for the art of communication.

The ill communication

Let's not single out IT workers. If you are an MBA, you have doubtless been drilled in the rituals of pathological Powerpoint bullets, or the emailing of the inscrutable spreadsheet. And, if you want to keep it real, you simply subpoena colleagues to a teleconference by firing a calendar request across their bow. Judging from this, the art of etiquette and social graces would seem to be on the decline.

But it's more than mere politeness. In meetings, you practice the secret language of acronyms and abbreviations to ensure those outside your tribe (who otherwise rely on SSL for their obfuscation) would feel small against your stature.

"They just sent the PO for the POC ahead of the GA, then the CXO IM-ed news of the IPO with an IPA... so now we turn it into a SaaS in the EOQ stats to get the OpEd."

In other words, you actually belong to a wider group: you are one of the increasingly commonplace factions of society that takes pride in not bothering to make yourself understood. You feel entitled to let others worry about what you really mean, and even revel in the tribalism of `being in the know' rather than letting others into your secret world, as if playing the role of an ignorant tourist in a foreign country.

Consider the issue from the other way around. In the world of programming, we write some code and throw it out there, maybe obfuscated with some inline commentary. There are those who say that assembler, C code, Ruby or (name your language) is inherently unreadable, or that Object Oriented (class based) programming is inherently readable and more natural easier to understand. There are favourite languages (Pascal was written for teaching, for instance), but is comprehensible code really about picking a particular tool? The search for the perfect language (the one spoken before God destroyed the tower of Babel and confounded the world's tongues) has been going on since for centuries, why would it by chance happen to be something on github? That's an idea from a lazy mind. We cannot throw out anything unilaterally and expect understanding, because understanding is a process, a relationship. But generally, all we care to think about is the mechanics of an algorithm.

Are we losing the skills for explaining ourselves comprehensibly? Or just the humility? And I am not just talking about speech and business, but also about how we design services, software, documentation, and public information portals. Now that anyone can search for information on their own, we feel less and less moral responsibility to help each other understand, it seems. Perhaps because messaging is not information anymore---it's just data.

Fast food infosplurge

Is it so difficult to apply service-minded thinking to communication?

As a teenager, I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, who prided themselves on explaining difficult ideas of science simply to their readers. Later, I moved to popular science of P.C.W. Davies and Richard Dawkins. I studied physics, but despised philosophy, because physics tried to make everything as simple as possible and philosophy seemed to do the opposite. Clearly there are those who like to grandstand and go out of their way to pretend they are above the level of others, but the lack of clarity is extending to the unconscious default now.

I became a teacher at high schools and universities for some twenty years, and learned how to choose words and know when to stop talking. As a world-traveller I learned to enunciate clearly, avoiding difficult words, and adapt my use of language to the listener. The idea of trying to be understood was not a matter of showing off what I knew, it was about respecting the listener's time, having granted a little to hear me speak. And it is hard work.

Information technology has changed these simple ideals. The ability to serve up a ton of data in short order has altered our idea of what is an acceptable exchange. Get data quickly, and leave the interpretation to the recipient. The fact that we speak about data now, rather than information, or even answers, is symptomatic of our shift of attitude. Empty a bucket of data onto someone and let them figure it out.

Being helpful in software and in life

All this goes far beyond meeting culture, or even electronic communication. We seem to have lost respect for the value of others' time and needs. Instead of providing user-tailored answers or services that adapt to individual needs, and explain concepts that might be unfamiliar, we seem content to just flip a whopper info-burger and serve it up a quickly as possible. Something to say? String together a few tweets, whip out a paragraph on Wordpress...

With a few exceptions, the lack of respect for users' time in software culture is insidious. In UX design, we try to make the user experience easy from the point of view of finding their way around interfaces, but then fail magnificently when delivering results that answer the question that was posed at the expertise level of the user. When we provide information, it is often little more than noise: random thoughts from someone's head on the spur of the moment. In programming, the ideas of `literary programming' and Domain Specific Languages have not really made a dent on the idea of code as optimized communication between humans rather than just a byte stream to pour into the digital blender.

And this is not just human to human time-wasting. Most monitoring software throws meaningless graphs up into screens to push our `wow buttons'. If you want to know something about your infrastructure, you need to understand it. Well, you can get "data" from any number of software applications, but if you want to question the quality or reliability of the information, say how long the collection latency was, you would be met with nothing but the possibility of increasing the amount of data. Bereft of history or context, inexperienced users are left to guess the meaning, or to `drill down' to raw numbers in search of clues. Someone needs to hire a teacher to lay this stuff out! Increasing the quantity of numbers, and stuffing them into some schema, does not make their meaning obvious.

Know it like a friend

Knowledge management is the challenge of our decade (see my comments on why). Information is easy, but turning information into knowledge is hard. In IT, we often don't even try. In my book In Search of Certainty, I argue that knowledge is not mere data --it is a long-term relationship. To claim that we know something or someone is to have sufficient experience of them to recognize their behaviours, be able to use them, and adapt to their quirks. Knowledge (whether the source is practice, books, the Internet or fireside storytelling) is something you rehearse or revisit often, until you know it like a friend.

When writing textbooks and newspaper articles, journalists and authors work to impart experiences and convey the sense of what they know. They teach what they have learned. Journalists do not only report raw facts, but try to offer context for facts not only as they see them themselves, but through others' eyes, in as balanced a way as possible. Even half-decent scientific papers try to do this, without colouring the conclusions too much. Being non-partisan is as close to being objective as you can be, and still be helpful. The trick is to put the enough relevant information in front of the reader so that he or can form their own interpretation of the facts. In science, we call it a model.

Don't kill the message (by drowning or by starvation)

So, how could we reverse the trend and do better? What communication promises should we be trying to keep? As in many cases, having empathy for others is the key. We need to learn to put ourselves in the shoes of our counterpart, and ask ourselves what do they (not) know?

  • We could choose an appropriately neutral and universal language to communicate intent, and explain tribal knowledge as a service to our audience. ("Know your audience")
  • The days of the fat user manual are gone. If software is not self-explanatory, then it is considered a failure. That said, it should still be able to answer relevant questions.
  • We could try to help the reader/user to be in a relevant frame of mind for information they are about to see. Again, pay attention to what they already know. Each genre has its own cultural references. Could we actually adapt with custom semantics?
  • Rather than telling others what to think, how could we provide and organize comparative information to allow the user to form a value judgements of their own by comparison. This plays to trustworthiness, and it builds a tower of reasoning in their minds as they consume the linear input stream you offer them.
  • We can explain special terminology and acronyms, not assume familiarity or tribal knowledge. We can invite others into our tribe, or meet them on the border with that common language.
  • Above all: how can we pull off those Bose headphones and develop an on-going human-friendly relationships with information? It might not be communicated by a human, but it is human by proxy. How can we know it like a friend?
  • We can also know when to say less, decide what not to show, and decide how to let the user choose depending on their own.

Pedagogy is a conversation. It requires the ability to reach cross cultural boundaries and communicate with someone who is potentially not like us. Our technological future needs more teachers and fewer programmers -- or at least lots of hybrids.

Nothing is inherently understandable to someone on your terms, they need their own. We have to match someone else's context, massage their frame of mind to ours. Stockpiling for some Big Data landfill (and subsequent mining operation) is not the answer. Forget data. Knowledge is what is left when you recycle experience and throw away the data that are irrelevant.

MB Oslo Thu Sep 25 21:52:36 CEST 2014