Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tech Writing

While most of the yammering in the world is about politics, my experience is that most of the profound ideas of our day come from science and industry. We yammer about politics because it is a cheap, easy and provocative thing to do.

In the last half century, a very large number of powerful ideas have come from the field of computer programming and systems design.

Sadly, the great ideas from science and engineering rarely get good coverage in the mainstream media.

Ideas from science and industry show up on store shelves, in medicine and in services. We often see advertisements for products created by industry, but the actual doings of industry and science rarely make it into broader cultural discourse.

When science does break the news, it often does so couched in fluff pieces like articles on global warming or intelligent design.

Yes, I was actually happy last year when people were debating intelligent design because it got people talking about biology, geology and other hard core science.

Unfortunately, the thrust of mainstream debates on science involve political actions. The ID debate was not presented as an invitation to explore ideas, but positioned as a method to quash science. The intelligent design debate was a golden opportunity to discuss the wonders of science. Unfortunately, the debate was dominated by loud mouth jerks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who wanted to use the debate as a pulpit from which to proclaim their hatred of Christianity.

BTW, it seemed obvious to me that ID posed absolutely no threat to science. Science always benefits from open discourse. The effect of a good open debate about the origins of man will have the affect of drawing people into the sciences.

As for global warming, I find discussions about climate fascinating. Sadly, the main thrust of the global warming debate seems to be that global effects on temperature demand micromanagement of individual activity.

What irks me is that science in the MSM (a term which includes Fox News) tends to present science in the context of conflict and not as discovery.

I’ve read a great deal of classical literature. It seems that, at the height of the enlightenment, that there was more of unified amazement of the discoveries of science. With Hegel and Darwin, you started seeing an uber-politicalization of science which turned public discourse of scientific from discovery to shrill political battles.

In the classical world, science and logic were central to the pursuit of truth. In the progressive world, science is seen as a series of conflicts. The modern view holds the scientist is a Romantic hero in a culture war against the evil conservative. This idea of the scientist as a Romantic hero fighting against a moribund regressive society is sensational, but it ends up masking the beauty of the ideas behind science.

The idea of the scientist as romantic hero also seems to have the affect of splitting scientists into non-communicative camps who are more interested in supporting the myths behind their romantic heroes, rather than pursuing truth. A good example of this is linguistics which is more appropriately called the worship of Chomsky than an science.

While scientists and technologists are often people of great virtue, I am not certain that they are well served as being presented as Romantic heroes. The reality is that scientists, industrialists and technologists end up spending long days and nights on rather boring tasks. IHMO, the best scientists are those driven by the love of ideas with an eye toward truth.

In my view, the greatest heroes of scientists are those that spend the thousands of hours necessary to investigate the many facets of a science. The people who get their name associated with an idea are often posers.

There are really tough questions about how one goes about presenting the ideas behind science and technology. The things publicists do to make ideas popular often have the effect of denigrating the ideas that they promote.

My education was in liberal arts. (My actual dream in College was to become a calculus teacher and write math books for high school students). Although I was extremely liberal at the time, I committed the cardinal sin of exploring both sides of a political issue, and got tossed out on my arse.

Since school, I’ve worked as a second rate computer hack who does jobs that no-one-else company wants to do. I’ve been on several Death Marches and have a solid 100% fail rate with the programs I’ve designed.

Despite the fact that I don’t have a good record with my career, and lack qualifications, I love to talk about ideas.

My mind reels on the question of how to present technical discussions in ways that invigorate an understanding of an industry, market or technology.

My activist training in school says that compelling writing emphasizes conflict and ends with a call for action. For that matter, there is a whole body of literature on becoming an activist math teacher, or an activist science teacher. A progressive science teacher will explain that when a scientist makes measurements, they should be cognoscente of how the measurements affect social justice. Does recording the temperate as 32.1˚ serve social justice or should you round it up to 32.2˚?

A progressive math book would include word problems that make ad hominen attacks on George Bush. A progressive math book might have a question like: "If 92 babies die a day because of free market-capitalism, how many babies will die in a month because of freemarket capitalism?" Do enough of that, and you produce a brainwashed mass (a little like what the current educational establishment produces.)

Anyway, while the idea of discussing technical issues in the context of activism makes for compelling writing, I think it overpowers and ultimately detracts from the real science. Unfortunately, I've systematically convinced myself that it is the only way to write. The fact that global warming and ID got interesting ideas into the public. Since so much of the tech writing in the press contain little poltiical barbs, perhaps the way to write is to toss in a few blatant culture warrish barbs for spice.

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