Turn off and tune out

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

All good non-fiction writing shares certain characteristics: consistent economy, upbeat pace and digestible ideas that logically flow. Tech writers have an additional challenge, however, of combining all this with boring technical detail. How to explain the mechanical stuff without being either too dry or too simple? What’s the reader’s likely level of knowledge?

These questions can eat an author up. I imagine science writers have the same difficulty, but this problem weighs especially on tech writers, because the composition of a piece of software, an encryption standard, or a machine-learning algorithm has a direct bearing on how it works and therefore how it affects the world. You can’t really understand the social or economic impact of bitcoin, for example, without understanding — to a reasonable degree — how the thing works. It is essential, therefore, that books about technology make sense to the non-specialist without scrimping on detail. (If you don’t think this is a problem, go online now and google the word ‘blockchain’.) Two new books on tech both illustrate, in completely different ways, how to get it right — and wrong.

James Bridle’s New Dark Age argues that we have more facts, data and ideas than ever, and yet seem to understand less and less about the world around us. This is because we have, collectively and mistakenly, bought into the idea that all problems can be solved with more data and more computation. The argument is sound, and it’s a tidy theme to tie together an impressively wide range of subjects (including climate change, drones, surveillance, pharmacology and conspiracy theories). There are plenty of moments of powerful insight and useful provocation throughout. His section on the ‘replication’ problem in scientific studies is excellent. The description and analysis of the bizarre world of children’s YouTube video recommendations is harrowing and fascinating.

Unfortunately, the writing style overall is unnecessarily complicated and convoluted. Here’s an example: ‘To deal with the network is to deal with a Borgesian infinite library and all the contradictions contained within it: a library that will not converge and continually refuses to cohere.’ The reference to ‘Borgesian infinite library’ is too obscure; the quasi-alliteration is too pretty. It all sounds good, but I still don’t know what it actually means.

Too often the writing descends on a good idea like a dense fog. This is ironic because Bridle’s central argument (with which I agree wholeheartedly) is that technology has become too opaque and complex, which prevents most people from understanding it — and new ways of describing technology are necessary. But what’s the good of replacing the tyranny of technological opacity with an equivalence in prose? ‘There was and is no problem to solve, only collective enterprise: the emergent, unconscious generation of a tool for unconscious generation,’ he writes. I’ve read this over several times, to no avail.

Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is, by contrast, incredibly accessible. The conversational tone makes for light reading, yet it’s also a hard-hitting and well-constructed polemic. Both Lanier and Bridle want us to reject a world that’s datafied or fitted into neat boxes. But rather than embrace complexity, as Bridle suggests, Lanier says, plainly: turn off your social media and regain your free will, concentration, data, and empathy. It’s occasionally derivative, but given it’s derivative of his own work (Lanier was a Silicon Valley critic before it was cool) it’s easy to forgive.

Every author will tell you it’s easy to write prose that’s hard to read, but very hard to write prose that’s easy. Lanier has a genius for conveying important ideas in simple ways without sacrificing essence or detail: ‘The problem occurs,’ he says, ‘when all the phenomena I’ve just described are driven by a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behaviour.’ Isn’t that clear and yet informative?

However, Lanier’s book occasionally suffers from the opposite problem to Bridle’s. It’s so simple that sometimes the reader feels mildly patronised. For instance: ‘It might not seem like it at first, but I’m an optimist. I don’t think we have to throw the whole digital world away. A lot of it’s great!’ This is stylistically similar to a Donald Trump tweet, and also feels as if it’s aimed at a precocious nine-year-old.

All tech writers have a problem with repetition. If you’re writing about bitcoin, say, you have to find a way of not repeating the word ten times a page. Repetition avoidance is far harder than you might think, and a real nuisance. Lanier’s main target of attack is not the internet as a whole; it’s the large social media platforms that are driven by the logic of free services in exchange for serving ads. He calls this ‘Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent’, and turns it into an acronym: BUMMER. Fine. He then proceeds to use BUMMER — always in capitals — 321 times in a book of just 144 pages. I get why he’s trying it, but it results in the following sentences: ‘They were forced to become BUMMER in order to not be annihilated by BUMMER.’ And ‘Your identity is packified by BUMMER.’ And ‘The most dangerous thing about BUMMER is the widespread illusion that BUMMER is the only possibility.’

No reader should be subjected to this. Isn’t it stressing you out already? In addition to being plain ugly on the page, which is a consideration, the reader gets worn out and ground down by the impulse to pause at each BUMMER, and is thus unable to process the idea.

We all need to understand better the role technology is playing in our lives, and the tech writer’s job should be to help us do that. Both books are valuable contributions and I recommend you read them both. But they would have been even better without BUMMERS and similes and foggy philosophy. Tech writing should, like the subject it seeks to describe, always make sense to the people on the receiving end.

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