A Rant About Communication Style

OK, in theory, I should not be writing politics here, this blog is about technical communication.

BUT………………

Recent events in the U.S. bring up a question that is related to communication, albeit not technical.

The recent (yesterday) shooting in Arizona, it seems to me, is a logical conclusion of the hate mongering that began back in the 90’s in U.S. political rhetoric.  While it is not exclusively the domain of the Republican party, it seems to predominate on that side of the political fence.

It started with the hate campaigns launched against then President Clinton.  It started with pure lies (yes, I KNOW they were lies) told by a senior senator and former presidential candidate regarding the Canadian health care system when Hilary Clinton was attempting to cobble together some sort of universal health care plan for the U.S.

I know they were lies because I am a citizen of several countries, including Canada, and have lived under the Canadian health care system – something the U.S. senators have not.

Since that time, the entire tone of political rhetoric has hardened, and become still more aggressive and violent. This includes radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who function by innuendo and suggestion, without backing up their assertions with facts (who needs them?).

I would remind everyone, that this tactic, known as “The Big Lie,” was admirably practiced by one Joseph Goebbels during a small military skirmish known as the Second World War.

The Reagan and Baby Bush administrations (essentially the same folks) honed these techniques to perfection – see George Lakoff’s admirable analysis, Whose Freedom? for details.

The now notorious cross-hair post on Sarah Palin’s web site that included Gabrielle Giffords as a “target” is a perfect example of the kind of hard rhetoric I’m talking about.

Let’s be clear here – I am not taking a stand for or against any political position in this blog, it’s not the place to do it.  I am making a very loud, protesting cry against the tone and style of political communication in this day and age.

Ms. Palin is entitled to her opinions about universal health care, but she is not entitled to publish inflammatory texts that suggest attacking (however metaphorically) other human beings. When she tweets out “don’t retweet, reload” to the world, this is, in my view, the kind of limitation to free speech that justice Frankfurter referred to when he said the first amendment does not include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

I hope Ms. Palin will think twice, three times, and more, before publishing or spouting more “shoot from the hip” aggressive attacks. She should be ashamed.  I fear she won’t be, and that, also, is alarming.

To the Palins, Limbaughs, Becks, Bachmans and other demagogues of media or politics, I say with fervor and sincerity, the fact that someone disagrees with your political position does not render them  a traitor to their country or a bad person.  The fact that you paint them as such, does render you one.

There – I’ve started slipping down the same slope.  Let’s not go there.

A Beautiful Example of Transformation

Friends, check out this video:

It’s a great example of what Edward Tufte has been writing about for decades, and a marvelous demonstration of the power of simplicity to tell an important story.

Check out the site that posted this, Information is beautiful, to see more of the same kind of transformation thinking.

I have written elsewhere about the need for a transformation society (not an information society), where the accumulation of information becomes less important, information gets de-commodified, and is transformed into knowledge, know-how and understanding.

This seems a daunting task, and yet these people have done a part of it so simply, clearly, and (seemingly) effortlessly.

The video embedded above (and you can find a version for the U.K. in pounds sterling, too) shows clearly how we have developed an economy of debt, where we prefer to overspend and play financial games, than to put a relatively small amount of money into really solving some of the world’s problems.

Our information accumulation society has had something to do with this phenomenon, so it is wonderful to see the same technology applied to demonstrate clearly that this is a road we do not want to continue following.

Next step:  Let’s find ways to demonstrate how we can use the technology to implement these solutions.

The Real Significance of WikiLeaks

The shock value of the WikiLeaks revelations have been dissected and analyzed to death. There would seem to be consensus that we didn’t learn much we didn’t already know from the recent flood of documents exposed by the site. There seems to be less consensus about whether these leaks represent a new transparency or a danger to international diplomacy.

None of these, it seems to me, represents the real significance of WikiLeaks. The real story comes from the spontaneous eruption of support for Julian Assange on the internet. I don’t just mean the spontaneous rallying of public opinion via the net. I mean the guerilla actions of hackers who attacked, en masse, Visa and Mastercard computers when they closed down payment services for WikiLeaks.

We seem to be headed for a world in which the existing power structures – governments, multinational corporations, economic alliances, etc. – are having to face, more and more, parallel structures – call them communities of interest, if you like – that run detours around the usual circuits, and circumvent the usual “avenues of power.”

It’s clear that this is just the beginning.  How far will it go, and is it a good thing?

The Ends of Books

One of these days, I’m going to read the ends of most of the non-fiction books I’ve picked up in the last few years.

The truth is, often I start a book, and one of two things happens:

  • The book is really boring, I put it down and never pick it up again.  This is the easy one.
  • The book is really interesting, it generates so many good ideas it makes my wisdom teeth ache, and all I can think of doing is writing down my thoughts, underlining the great passages in the book, and getting excited about all this.

The second event is the more difficult one – because inevitably, I get so knotted up in my own paths running out in so many directions from a truly stimulating book, that I never get around to finishing the book.

In theory, a book is a portable, random-access, mass storage device.  Emphasize the random-access part.  Non fiction books, today, are not necessarily meant to be read in linear sequence, they are designed more like web sites, ideal for jumping around in, as you search the parts that interest you most.  But I grew up in the era of linear book reading, and I can’t quite lose the habit.  I always think I’m going to miss some important link to something earlier in the book.

This is certainly nonsense, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor the last, nor the silliest of my silly habits.  The result is that I have rarely read the parts in “the back of the book.”  I also harbour the secret notion that this is where the real interesting “meat” of the book is located.  Probably also nonsense, but then, if you spent years dealing with textbooks as part of your education, you understand about the “advanced” stuff being at the end.

So, one day, I’m going to pick up all those unfinished books, and just jump to the end, and read only the parts I’m really interested in.

Meanwhile, some advice for non-fiction authors who want to reach people like me (and I’ll bet they mostly already know this):  Put all your good stuff up front, and use the back of the book for – um – er – backup.

First Rant

I am a technical communicator.

“So what is it, exactly, that you do?”  I hear this a lot from people, even people that know me for many years.

It used to be easier to explain:  “You know, those manuals that come with products, or software, you know, the ones nobody ever reads?  Well, I write them.”

Except, I don’t anymore.  My profession has become something transcendental, mysterious if not actually mystical.  It is a great way to learn all kinds of new skills, and to mix three things that are my passion:  Communication, Culture and Technology.

It is a great profession, and a great time to be in this profession.  And that’s what this blog is about.