I remember his (unrepeatable) comments from our skype conversation a couple of months ago.
I salute a brave man
And wish him a safe return.......
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook. But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about.
The “curse of knowledge” is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail…….This is good stuff and what follows echoes exactly what my own draft said all these years ago -
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else's private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start. So for what it's worth: Hey, I'm talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don't, you are guaranteed to confuse them.
A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what's obvious to us isn't obvious to them.
The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?" The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures—with reputation but no real discipline—have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas.
Now what discipline, what department is that?Everyone who knew Postman—and I include perhaps a hundred thousand who only heard him speak—knew him first through humor, which was the reflection in person of the satire in most of his books, each of which is a pamphlet, an essay between covers: The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) was satire about the infantalization in American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was satire about entertainment and what it was doing to us. Technopoly (1993) was satire on the “surrender of culture to technology.”
To understand the limitations of technocratic approaches to social problems, he reads in communication studies and political philosophy. To provide a context for his interpretation of the dominant Internet myth, Morozov draws on key works in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology. The bibliography is diverse, ranging from the canonical debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippman on the role of expertise in democracy. This type of synthetic work is all too rare in cultural criticism, and there is an excellent reading list embedded in the endnotes of To Save Everything, Click Here. If Morozov’s argument rings true — and, for the most part, it does — it is due to the strong philosophical foundation on which he stands.
"To Save Everything" is animated by a thoroughgoing critique of two central ideas that Morozov terms “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism.” The first describes an instrumental engagement with public life that regards all social and political issues as problems to be solved. The second refers to a fascination with the Internet as a wholly novel sociotechnical phenomenon (which Morozov first diagnosed in his 2011 book The Net Delusion). Solutionism and Internet-centrism are both worldviews infused with the technocratic values of efficiency, cleanliness, and productivity, values that are poorly suited, in Morozov’s view, to life in a pluralistic liberal democracy.
These terms allow Morozov to take a position outside the usual pro–con debates over digital technology. Rather than participate in the kind of either-or thinking characteristic of questions like “Is Google making us stupid?” (the title of an infamous 2008 Atlantic article by Nicholas G. Carr), Morozov explores the underlying assumptions that make such a question possible in the first place. Across an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — review of the recent technology literature, he traces a persistent, unexamined reiteration of the dominant Internet myth……
Morozov pinpoints the mantra of today’s solutionism in the recurring description of entrenched institutions as “broken”: Education is broken; the Postal Service is broken; Wall Street is broken; Congress is broken. This solutionist Mad Lib is especially prevalent in the discourses of Silicon Valley where start-up founders are encouraged to pitch to potential investors in terms of the problems they plan to solve. Indeed, writes Morozov, “Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun: politics, citizens, publishing, cooking.” But not all organizations can or should be modeled after a Silicon Valley start-up: “Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts,” since “their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide.” Such institutions will almost inevitably appear “broken” when judged according to the bottom-line economic measures favoured by business-minded solutionists: efficiency, for instance, or productivity. …..
Across 350 pages, he leads the reader on a relentless march through the weeds of Internet-centric hype, criss-crossing technologies and contexts as diverse as open government, gamification and crime prediction, the quantified self and serendipity engines. It is a strange sort of quest that feels almost compulsive in its pursuit of the bugbears of technological solutionism and Internet-centrism. The result is a relatively short book that simply feels too long, its comprehensiveness sliding into redundancy as the examples pile up. One wonders if it was necessary to attack every single instance of Internet-centrism? Following a lengthy engagement with the “datasexuals” of the Quantified Self movement in chapter seven, going after Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” practices felt particularly tedious at the start of chapter eight. Surely some targets are more worthy than others. …..
The critique of efficiency and productivity in the foreground of To Save Everything builds on a commitment to deliberative democracy that undergirds much of the book. Deliberation, Morozov points out, is quintessentially inefficient. Bringing people with different backgrounds and commitments together for the purpose of reaching a mutually satisfying agreement is a slow and messy and often frustrating process. Whereas solutionism assumes the possibility of consensus and unanimity, Morozov champions compromise. “Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.”