Talking to everyone: the framing of science and technology

In an item that asks How big is the club?, Tim Bray writes:

We who read (and write) blogs and play with the latest Internet Trinkets (and build them) have been called an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, a teeny geeky minority whose audience is itself.

Very true. What’s more, I believe this tribe is, over time, growing farther away from the rest of the world. That’s happening for an interesting and important reason, which is that the tools we are building and using are accelerating our ability to build and use more of these tools. It’s a virtuous cycle in that sense, and it’s the prototype for methods of Net-enabled collaboration that can apply to everyone.

But for the most part, we’re not crossing the chasm with this stuff. I’ve thought, written, and spoken a lot about this issue lately. It’s why I’m reaching out to public radio, why I’ve been speaking at conferences other than the ones frequented by my geek tribe, and why I am working for a company whose products reach hundreds of millions of people.

How do you talk to everyone about the transformative benefits of the technologies we’re so excited about, in ways that don’t make people flip the bozo switch and tune you out? How do you tell stories that make the benefits of the technology come alive for people, in ways they can understand, without overwhelming them with technical detail, but at the same time without dumbing down your explanation of the technology?

It’s a huge challenge, and not just for us. As those of you who sample the scientific blogosphere will know, the publication of this brief commentary in Science, reprised here in the Washingon Post, was a bombshell that triggered a huge debate about how, or even whether, scientists should try to frame the stories they tell about science in order to connect with mainstream audiences.

I’m not a scientist myself, and I won’t presume to try to summarize what scientists are saying to one another about the Nisbet/Mooney commentary in Science. But I will observe that it has provoked intense passion on all sides. At some point, I hope that “our tribe” will find itself similarly energized by a discussion of how to communicate beyond the borders of the tribe.

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18 thoughts on “Talking to everyone: the framing of science and technology

  1. Interesting piece. The tribe indeed. A subculture even. Take RSS as an example. Far from a new technology; but the vast majority of Internet users today don’t digest content with it. Most have never heard of it. Can you imagine consuming all of the content that you want to each day without subscribing to RSS feeds? Translators are needed to advocate benefits to the everyman without confusing them with how it all works. I wrote a similar rant last year that you might find interesting.

    All the best


  2. Well, first off, the set of bloggers and RSS users is millions larger than the people who re building the technology. So your first fallacy is conflating technical bloggers/Twitterers/IM users/social network users with the technical minority. Do you really think that the 50million people who have blogs are all geeks? I know several food bloggers… a few wine bloggers. A couple of political bloggers. None of them are geeks, none care about the underlying technology. Oh, and you don’t explain the technology. If you have to explain the technology, the product needs work.

    A couple of years ago people talked about the ‘adoption of RSS’. This was, and remains, a silly phrase. When the web first appeared, people did not adopt HTML, CSS, Javascript and more… they started seeing web sites that interested them, let them do things in new ways, etc. Amazon was a much easier way to buy a book if you didn’t want to go to the store or the store didn’t have the book you wanted. was a new way to get news. Social networks are new way to relate to people. Very few of the people who use these and tens of millions of other sites care at all about the technology behind them. In the same way, people will never ‘adopt RSS’. They will start using new products that RSS and related technologies make possible.

    Finally, you aren’t going to get the mass of people to be early adopters… that’s inherently contradictory. But you can and will see most people adopt things that are useful in their lives. They did it with office software, email, IM. They’re doing it with social networking software and online video. They’re continue to do it, but NOT because you try to explain the technology. They’ll do it because you create fun, useful or compelling products.

  3. Jon, do you know kung fu?

    I’ve recently watched movie Shaolin soccer ( ). It’s a comedy about a man who tries to promote martial art skills, because he thinks they could help normal people in everyday lives.

    Try to watch it, and every time martial arts or kung fu is mentioned, replace it with technology.

    Knowing kung fu would probably help me, I’d have better control of my body, my back wouldn’t hurt, and I would probably get rid of RSI injuries…

    But the truth is, day only has 24h, and we must decide where to spend them. For some people it’s kung fu, for others it’s new technology, and let’s hope that some of both comes to everyday lives.

    You’re on a very noble quest of bridging the gaps of two worlds, but the fact is that those gaps will always be there, simply as a consequence of time geeks spend on learning about technology. We are always ahead of the curve, and we’ll always be there, but it’s important to have people like you trying to push some established technologies to the rest of the world.

    And the rest of the world will adopt them when they become ready.

  4. Scientists, bloggers, thinkers, whoever wants to get a message out, and have people ‘hook onto’ the knowledge and ride it where it goes, must do one thing and one thing well:

    Sit back and come up with interesting things to say about it.

    Don’t just write. Sit back and come up with interesting things to say. So that your fingers are itching for the keyboard. Reach for inspiration. Sure you can do it. It’s important enough.

    Sit back and come up with interesting things to say. So that you’d want to repeat it. So you wouldn’t want to lose it. So that you’d walk through the dungeons of Hades to locate a -page- to save it upon. Why not?

    Insist on a level of excellence. Not just something clever, or reasoned. Not just in contrast to something, or in defense of something. Not in your language, or the language of your circle. Not poetic, not antagonistic – or not overly so.

    Make a statement for all time. And all people. Read Samuel Johnson. And Will Durant. They knew how to do this. Read a book of aphorisms. Be quotable. Build a meme.

    At least give it a shot. Sit back and think how this could affect things. Touch other domains. Think of something counter-intuitive. Be bold, then dial it back to a human level. Pace. Imagine explaining it to Ben Franklin. Ask what’s missing? Tie it to something else that resonates within you. Find what binds this to all souls.

    And 90% of the time, just let it go. If the conscious brain doesn’t do what I’ve described above, the subconscious brain will. It takes a conscious effort to keep this from happening — usually the act itself of writing, or saying something before its time.

  5. a few things here:

    1. how do we make good tech more accessible to people so it’s OBVIOUS to them that it’s useful, why it’s useful, and that it’ll make things better (without making things work)? that I think is your interest – a noble one. for me, part of that is about getting people to listen to great audio that they would love to hear on the radio, but will not seek out or listen to on the computer.

    2. some people just don’t want what techies are selling … they don’t want more information, more connection, more tech. they want less.

    3. radio & tv took decades each to get adopted … but kids (at least wealthy ones with access to tech) eat this stuff like candy. funny thing i heard, from a 12-yr-old: “email is for old people!” that is, the kids are going to absorb it all, and worries about adoption of this round will slowly fade away. tho others will be wondering the same thing about a different set of new technologies in 10, 20 and 100 years.

  6. You’re talking about digital literacy and scientific literacy. You might want to take a look at what it took to get to near-universal reading-and-writing literacy, and where that still fails. In many cases the process wasn’t pretty. Of course, now we have reading-and-writing literacy as an additional tool to apply in promulgating the newer forms, but it still won’t be easy.

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