The technology understanding gap

2008 #51: Still Not Connected
Eugene Eric Kim has an excellent post on The Technology Understanding Gap which uses a story to articulate one of the key challenges of technology stewardship – the frequent gap of understanding, and practice with technology that happens between a steward and her/his community. (The same goes for advisers, consultants and that geek friend who really, really wants to help you.)

First a quote from Eugene (I realize as I write this and having just written about Brian Hsi, that these guys both are smart and have a very thoughtful way of expressing both their ideas, and how they formulated them. I love that about both of them!)

Technology is insidious. It has a way of dominating a problem the way nothing else can. If you understand technology, it’s hard not to see everything in that light. If you don’t understand technology, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by what you don’t know.

Eugene tells the story of a group he was facilitating and how they were trying to figure out how to connect a network of practitioners across the country. Eugene, recently inspired by Clay Shirky and his three column model, decided to use the “Tasks/Tools/Promises” framework for thinking about the group’s challenge.

Eugene Kim's flipchart picture
Eugene continues:

What do you notice about this picture?

Obviously, the Tools column is completely empty. That’s a dead giveaway that I’m facilitating this discussion. (That and the horrific handwriting.) Figure out the basics first. Don’t let the question about technology drive the discussion.

During the discussion, one of the participants asked, “What tools can we use?”

I responded, “Let’s not worry about that now.” So we kept talking and talking, and I noticed the two non-technical participants in the group squirming like crazy.

So I stopped, noticed how gaping the Tools column looked, and said, “You’re uncomfortable about not having discussed the tools, aren’t you.”

She nodded.

“Don’t worry about it,” I responded. “The tools part will be easy, once we figure everything else out.”

“Easy for you, maybe,” she said. “You already know what goes there.”

That was not quite true, but I got her point, and the force of it struck me so hard, I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the gap, and I saw possibilities. She looked at the gap, and she saw a void. That was upsetting for her. It made it hard for her to think about the other aspects of the problem.

It made me realize how much I take my technology literacy for granted. But it also created an opportunity to discuss how easily we are sidetracked by technology. “Tool” does not have to mean software, and making that assumption prevents us from exploring other viable, possibly better solutions.

In his post, Eugene goes on to reflect that next time he does the exercise he is going to start WITHOUT the tools column. I can see that as a really useful option. But I think there is an additional perspective.

Tools are sometimes not just practical affordances to get a job done, but they offer a way to visualize an outcome. we conceptualize them quickly with “technology” and all its bells and whistles, but tools are something bigger than just the latest software. Yes, they can limit us, but sometimes they also open up possibilities. As much as I’m a deep believer in the Task and Promise columns, I am surprised and reminded that some people, even non technical people, have a conceptual framework that builds ON the IDEA of a tool. So taking away that column may actually INCREASE anxiety for some, rather than reduce it.

My final question to myself and you, is how do we USE the tool column in a way that does not lead us down the technocentric path, but still helps us keep the concept and usefulness of “tool” in our conversations? How do we most usefully have and facilitate, as needed, these conversations?

Photo credits:
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jeroen Latour and Eugene Kim