The Technology Understanding Gap

Technology is insidious. It has a way of dominating a problem the way nothing else can. If you understand technology, it’s hard not to see everything in that light. If you don’t understand technology, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by what you don’t know.    (MUK)

I’ve known these things for a long time, and I often talk about these things, but I saw the latter phenomenon in a way that really affected me last month at the Packard Foundation gathering on the future of network impact in philanthropy. On the first evening, Clay Shirky gave a preview of his book (available now), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (which sounds like it’s a real winner; can’t wait to read it).    (MUL)

One of Clay’s contentions was that projects that worked in large-scale networks shared a happy medium between a Promise, a Tool, and a Bargain. In the case of Linux, Linus Torvalds‘s Promise was to build “a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.” (Note how small and concrete the original Promise was, compared to what Linux has become.) The Tool was source code control (specifically diff and patch in the early days). The Bargain was the GPL, which stated that if you contributed your work, others would as well.    (MUM)

A lot of my work centers around facilitating collaboration in large-scale networks, so I found this contention particularly interesting. The following day, I co-led a session on this topic with Angus Parker. Two of the participants were dealing with the specific challenge of connecting members of a national network of leaders in reproductive health, so we used that as a case study. We decided to use Clay’s contention to frame the problem, resulting in this whiteboard:    (MUN)    (MUO)

What do you notice about this picture?    (MUP)

Obviously, the Tools column is completely empty. That’s a dead giveaway that I’m facilitating this discussion. (That and the horrific handwriting.) Figure out the basics first. Don’t let the question about technology drive the discussion.    (MUQ)

During the discussion, one of the participants asked, “What tools can we use?”    (MUR)

I responded, “Let’s not worry about that now.” So we kept talking and talking, and I noticed the two non-technical participants in the group squirming like crazy.    (MUS)

So I stopped, noticed how gaping the Tools column looked, and said, “You’re uncomfortable about not having discussed the tools, aren’t you.”    (MUT)

She nodded.    (MUU)

“Don’t worry about it,” I responded. “The tools part will be easy, once we figure everything else out.”    (MUV)

“Easy for you, maybe,” she said. “You already know what goes there.”    (MUW)

That was not quite true, but I got her point, and the force of it struck me so hard, I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the gap, and I saw possibilities. She looked at the gap, and she saw a void. That was upsetting for her. It made it hard for her to think about the other aspects of the problem.    (MUX)

It made me realize how much I take my technology literacy for granted. But it also created an opportunity to discuss how easily we are sidetracked by technology. “Tool” does not have to mean software, and making that assumption prevents us from exploring other viable, possibly better solutions.    (MUY)

I had two takeaways. First, I had previous explored doing a basic technology literacy workshop as part of Blue Oxen AssociatesTools for Catalyzing Collaboration series, but I was not particularly motivated to do it. I’m now rethinking this. Second, if I ever do this exercise again, I’m not going to include the Tools column initially. We can throw that in later.    (MUZ)

2 replies to “The Technology Understanding Gap”

  1. I think you're on to something important here, Eugene. Something that I've not seen anything written about–though that may just be my ignorance.

    I think these and some of your other thoughts about technology and literacy could be fruitfully expanded and deserve a broad audience.

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