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March 1, 2007 » 11:50 pm

Talking Technology

Todd Johnston posted an outstanding summary of our informal session this past Saturday. He mentioned our first exercise, which was to have Todd, Gail Taylor, and Tiffany Von Emmel explain how email worked to Matthew O’Connor and myself, who had had sudden bouts of amnesia. Todd wrote, “This exercise, as you may imagine, did a lot to uncover assumptions, vantage points and metaphors we use to shape our understanding.”    (LX9)

The point of the exercise was two-fold. First, we wanted the group to have a better understanding of how the Internet worked. Second, rather than tell them how it worked, we wanted them to figure it out by thinking through the problem. Most of us have the mental tools to understand technology; we just choose not to use them. We wanted to get them to use them.    (LXA)

What was interesting about the exercise was that they did an excellent job of drawing a basic conceptual picture. However, when Matthew and I started asking probing questions to help fill in the gaps, they abandoned their mental models and started reverting to buzzwords. They mentioned things like packets and algorithms and server farms, all of which demonstrated knowledge of Internet lingo, but none of which was necessary to explain how email worked.    (LXB)

Matthew pointed out that techies often do the same thing. When confronted with basic questions about technology, they often start throwing around concepts and language that aren’t critical to the core question. In these cases, they do this because they’re unaware of the other party’s mental models and are feeling around for context.    (LXC)

Why would non-techies do the same thing? In this particular case, it was for the exact same reason. Even though Matthew and I were playing dumb, they knew that we knew the answers. When we started asking questions, they abandoned their model and started feeling around for the answers we might be looking for, hence the lingo.    (LXD)

When one person has knowledge that the other person doesn’t have, that often results in a power relationship, and power relationships affect how people behave. What makes this relationship dangerous is when people assume that this knowledge is somehow sacred and unattainable. Many non-technical people are guilty of this. It’s evident when people preface their statements, “I’m not a techie,” as if that makes them incapable of understanding technology. It’s an attitude problem that stems from fear.    (LXE)

The important thing is that everyone is capable of understanding technology. Don’t let those supposedly in the know bully you away from being confident in what you understand and what you don’t understand.    (LXF)

On a separate note, Todd also describes Finding Your Hey, an exercise that the band, Phish often performs. Todd first told me this story two years ago, and I dutifully blogged about it, but I didn’t know what it was called, and I didn’t know the exact quote. It’s a wonderful story.    (LXG)

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2 Responses to “Talking Technology”

  1. Thank you, Eugene ~ your words land as I reflect back on similar experiences.

    I wonder if another factor at play is identity? One of the things that I've learned to appreciate about techies (especially young techies) ~ or experts, for that matter ~ is the crucial role that being experts has in their development and growth as human beings. That process occasionally invites engaging in one-upping, to distinguish and validate oneself.

    It's a natural and appropriate stage ~ and one that's not always supportive of collaboration and real communication (whenever any of us launches into explanation that may sound foreign to someone else without first inquiring to understand what's needed and appropriate to the situation).

    I also wonder about the power relationship … believing that true power can generate energy. My sense is that the kind of power described here is born out of insecurity (and one's need to individuate and validate themselves…)

    Your thoughts?

  2. I think you're right, Robin. Have you read Adam Kahane's latest book, Power and Love? It's about Paul Tillich's notions of the two concepts, and talks a lot about the distinction between "power of" vs "power over." Stepping into the former without morphing into the latter is a great, important challenge.

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