As the Vocabulary of Technology Expands, Speakers Find it Difficult to Bridge the Gap Between Themselves and Listeners.
By Thomas J. Roach
The ways we communicate about technology and about life-world issues are very different. One of the qualities of good leaders and teachers is their ability to explain highly complicated technological arguments to non-technical audiences.
Effective communication requires the speaker and listener to have common understandings of words and context. However, as the vocabulary of technology expands, speakers find it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge this gap.
Interestingly, the root word for technology is the Greek technē, which actually means, in part, a code. Thus, when we say something is technical, we aren’t saying it has to do with wires or terabytes or neutrons, we are saying literally that the language is exclusionary or at least less accessible.
The more progress we make in science, the less accessible scientific discourse becomes. What percentage of the population understands observations Einstein made about the speed of light 100 years ago? How many of us aren’t convinced that fossil fuels are warming the atmosphere? Or how many people do you know who don’t believe a man walked on the moon?
Public and Private Discourse
Prior to the 21st century, private and public discourse was conducted in ways that were broadly understandable. The more we evolve into a technological society, the more our business dealings require technical information and the less effective we are at sharing information and reaching consensus.
We entered WWII because Pearl Harbor was bombed. Almost everybody got that. Not so with the decision to invade Iraq based on a highly technical argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
There is no easy advice for coping with increasingly complex technical discourse. We need to be mindful that not everyone gets what we are saying and be able to explain and translate information from one group of experts to another.
A subtler but no less significant impact of the expanding role of technical communication has to do with the way we communicate. Technical communication is concerned with efficiency and control.
While efficiency and control are extremely useful goals when designing and employing equipment for blasting and moving aggregate, they can be counterproductive when dealing with employee issues like hiring, mentoring or reward and recognition. Most managers are good at one or the other, but few know how to do both.
Taylorism was a method of deliberately using technological reasoning for managing workers. In the late 19th century, Frederick Taylor popularized a management method that tried to treat workers like machines.
Charlie Chaplin spoofed Taylorism in his film, “Modern Times,” where the Little Tramp has a nervous breakdown trying to meet the expectations of a dehumanized work environment. “I Love Lucy” picked up the theme in the 1950s. Lucy gets a job where she has to wrap chocolates as they come to her on an assembly belt. If one piece gets by her without being wrapped, she is told she will be fired. She can’t keep up, so she starts eating and stuffing the chocolates into her pockets, her blouse and her hat.
When her boss comes to check and sees that no candy has gone down the assembly line unwrapped, she congratulates Lucy for doing splendidly and then calls for someone in the next room to speed up the belt.
The technical-minded manager makes one set of expectations for everyone. The more humanistic manager believes all employees are unique and will manage them differently. The technical response to diversity is to treat everyone the same, but the culturally intuitive approach is to acknowledge and embrace diversity.
It is also problematic that technical communication aims to eliminate processes of reasoning and judgment. In technical discourse, the facts speak for themselves. In traditional life-world discourse, we make the tough decisions by engaging nuance, value and ethical considerations.
We need experts who can engage in and explain technological discourse, but we need managers and leaders who know when to shift in and out of the technical thought process. A work environment prejudiced by technological communication is regimented and inauthentic and is neither participative nor rewarding.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].