Posted by: Tony Carson | 1 September, 2007

Technology and the scientifically illiterate society

I have no idea how a phone works, no real idea what happens when I stick a plug into a wall socket, absolutely no clue how my $125 printer can jet out a million shades of colour.

I’m not proud of my ignorance, but I’m not bothered by it either because I’m no more stupid about technology than the vast majority of people.

And anyway my stupidity (and yours) is technology’s fault … or, at least, the marriage of technology and language.

Why is it so difficult for techies to explain what in the hell they are doing and why and how they are doing it? If historians had the same problem we wouldn’t have a clue about our past.

But maybe things are looking up. Usually when I flash on a tech article my eye glaze by the second line. But not here, this girl knows her audience: Two IBM discoveries add promise for nano-computing.

Imagine cramming 30,000 full-length movies into a gadget the size of an iPod.

Got my attention, then this …

they had moved closer to such a feat by learning how to steer single atoms in a way that could create building blocks for ultra-tiny storage devices.

Understanding and manipulating the behavior of atoms is critical to harnessing the power of nanotechnology, which deals with particles tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.

“One of the most basic properties that every atom has is that it behaves like a little magnet … if you can keep that magnetic orientation stable over time, then you can use that to store information. That is how your hard drive works, … What we are trying to understand is how this fundamental property works for a single atom.”

I’m still with her, I’m learning something

“In the very long run, we’re shooting for data storage on a very tiny scale,”

I get that, like, I so get that. I’m learning, I read on …

meanwhile, (they) have stumbled on a way to manipulate molecules to switch on and off, a basic function needed in computer logic

But now I’m lost, it’s going to be too difficult to understand and I give up. But why? Because I’ve never had this on/off basic function explained to me in a way I can understand it and knowledge is linkages, learning one step after another in a logical sequence and when you don’t get a part of a sequence, you can’t understand what comes later. At least, I can’t.

And that’s the challenge of tech writing, to help us to learn all along the sequence, otherwise we will nod off and go away.

Ya, it’s a hassle for the writer and articles will have to be longer and precision greater, but that’s the reality in this age of technical illiteracy.

So here is the cry for help: the industry needs to better understand its audience and to nurture the reader to want to learn more and the only way to do that is to invent a new way of writing that thoroughly explains as it attempts to inform. There is no way around it.

But, hey, you got us in to this sorry state, not get us out of it.


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