Thursday, January 22, 2009

Technology, Content, Style

There are (at least) three facets of human communication: the tool, the content, and the style.

The tools of communication are literacy, communication technology (the internet, the written medium), multimedia (the visual arts, audio and music, cartoons, etc.).

The content is what we want to communicate: the fact, the idea, the opinion, the argument, ...

The style is its presentation: rigor and precision, language as art, graphic design, and so on.

The tool-makers, the content-participants, and the stylists all need to ruminate on where they are, and what they are doing, in the era where the IT revolution is coming of age.

A large percentage of the best minds of today are engaged in refining the first facet - the technology itself. Because technology (especially IT) is a lucrative career stream, many of us spend an inordinate part of our lives in its service.

On the other hand, to write well (or to create expressive art) and present it in an attractive way requires years of training. Some have a natural talent for it, but most of us express our ideas as we think them. We don't work too hard to refine our expression. We are literate, we can appreciate great writing, but to cultivate one's own expression and presentation is seen as an activity best suited for professional writers. Many of us who are good stylists, however, dismiss the new tools as fads.

As the internet explodes in participative expression, millions of people have taken to blogging, to commenting on others' articles, to communicate in forums and mailing lists. Participation is increasing, but not as much as is needed.

There are thousands of toolkits, web frameworks and platforms available to launch a new website or a portal, most of which are being used by businesses to create still more technical tools, services and communication technologies. Businesses are interested in markets and monetization. It is upto the individuals to direct technology for humane uses.

Today, technology can be easily harnessed to create a content-rich, community-driven website. There are hundreds of wiki and online forum platforms available today. I think it is time for the IT technologists to take a step back and wonder if they are engaged in the service of venture capitalists, or of humanity.

Why is it that the best minds of our generation are not engaged in directing the use of technology, instead of being involved in just refining it more and more? Especially in a poor, developing country like India, even a modicum of technological injection can have vast benefits.

I was talking to some people engaged in e-governance initiatives, and according to them, we have a very long way to go in using even easily available technology for the benefit of the masses. They mentioned that the status of e-governance in India is that of less than 1% completion.

Refining existing technology (e.g. creating an application for shopping comparison on the iphone) is only going to increase the divide between the digital haves and have-nots. On the other hand, applying existing technology can have enormously beneficial effects in a poor country.

Creating a website or a web application is ridiculously inexpensive these days, and by a little bit of tweaking, a great deal of functionality and content can be provided to those who are currently being left out of the internet revolution.

It is time for scientists and engineers to think beyond the advancement of technology, and to engage themselves (even in part) in furthering its use for those who would differentially benefit from it the most.

If portals, forums, databases and wikis are created for issues that concern humanity at large, both technology and style can take a back seat (since they are, so to say, elite pursuits) and a great number of human beings can engage in sharing information and content.

To Technologists: Don't just refine the tools, make people literate in those tools, help people use those tools, and use them yourself. Let not tools become ends in themselves. Don't just be member of a Mac users forum. Also be a member of (as an example) groups discussing climate change, groups discussing the future of religion, and so on.

To the Participants: Don't worry about style. Content is more important than style. However, today literacy is not just linguistic, but also a usable knowledge of communication tools. Educate yourselves in using basic internet functionality. Learn to participate on the internet, and don't just remain readers.

To the Stylists: You are the elite. Use technology effectively, present your ideas and share them with people from around the world. Don't think you are too old to learn new tools. The world is waiting for you to step up and use the keyboard, not just your pen.

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