Culture + Communication + Humans + Design
Posted by Roger Renteria
Technology can go only so far as to connecting us together in a virtual way. Thanks to technology, we are separated further and further away from other humans. When was the last time that you spent more time talking with a person instead of communicating through a device? Bernadette Longo says that “[p]eople value human relations. We want to feel connected to other people” (Longo, p. 156). Yet it’s funny that more and more recently, we are interacting through electronic devices instead of face-to-face.
I love the idea of using technology to communicate quickly and easily. I admit that I spend more time making plans via text message with my friends instead of calling someone up or talking to them in person. As we speak, my friends and I are discussing travel plans for next weekend. Questions arise from: “Are we staying at an Airbnb?” to “Should we rent a car or use Uber?” It used to be we’d sit together and get everything planned out. These days, it’s a group text. What will it be in the future?
I think we’ve been sold on a bad bill of communication goods because, despite the way technology has made our entire world more and more connected and easier to reach. According to Barry Thatcher, “[e]mail seems to have the distance and isolation of individualistic cultures” because it can’t even substitute for the personal interactions between people occupying the same physical space (Thatcher, p. 181). Nothing compares to it and yet somehow technology substitutes parts of that communication but not entirely everything.
In a sense, we are developing a virtual world that mimics the real one that we’ve created for physical items. Take for instance the iconography within digital environments. I have to refer to a well-known graphic artist: Susan Kare. She “helped establish the paradigm of icons as a navigational tool in graphical user interfaces.” “Her icons are metaphors” (Hurst, 2013). It’s interesting how we use metaphors for objects in a digital environment and sometimes they work really well and are accepted. However, sometimes there’s a metaphor which causes issues like the confused and misunderstood hamburger button.
I’m really interested in how much thought goes into culture and rhetoric. Longo points out that we “technical communicators can learn about cultural contexts by studying language and the social relationships embedded in how people use it” (Longo p. 149). My favorite examples come from color symbolism.
Infographic from Visually.
Living in the western world, I believe we forget that “our cultural values and beliefs are ‘normal’ and we notice what is different about other cultures” (Longo, p. 149). I think there is nothing wrong that ideas, feelings, symbols, and communication is different in other cultures but if we were aware of these cultural contexts, we would be better technical communicators. I’m pretty thankful that I have family in South America and that helps me understand a bit better how others function in different countries. I theorize with my mom about the technology shifts and how Colombia may skip steps in technology that the United States has first experienced.
The world works differently elsewhere and I’m okay with that. We technical communicators (as well as all humans) need to recognize the environment we enter when working in a cross-cultural setting. What may be culturally acceptable will not work well elsewhere. Barry Thatcher learned that difficulty while working as a technical communication teacher in Ecuador. I even learned that difficulty trying to talk with my cousins in Colombia because of the way they prefer communication over what I preferred. Thatcher says that “digital media simply do not fit all communicative and cultural traditions the same way.” It’s true in my experience, in Thatcher’s words, I “assumed that another culture will simply use digital media the same way” as we would like (Thatcher, p. 170). For me to communicate with my cousins, I had to find another digital technology that worked for them as well as for me. After years of struggling to find a perfect communication system, we finally nailed it down to WhatsApp. Now I can communicate with them quickly and I’m not as disconnected in their daily lives either. Even the phone calls are free.
Going along with technological advances, I’m not okay that the technology have-nots may get stuck behind. I understand that Rheingold’s model of an “inclusive community relies on economic and cultural gatekeepers” (Longo, p. 151) but technology creeps everywhere. Also, I want to point out that prisoners who have not been released for decades can fall behind on technology too.
Lastly, here’s a question for the ages
What’s our ethical use of our line of work? Can we find ways to communicate ethically as technical communicators? It was interesting to find a reference to Nazi Germany and technical communication. Katz (1992) found the “ethos of expediency” in a well-written memo, I want to counter that technical communication was also considered by the Allied Powers. I wrote in my own blog that “during WWII, Winston Churchill wrote a memo which asked for simpler language when communicating within his team. He wanted short and crisp messages, include headers, and remove ‘wolly’ phrases because he felt it was merely padding. Why? He didn’t want his staff to waste time reading long reports when there is a war going on” (Renteria, 2016).
I understand that we “technical communicators attend only to the utility and expediency of our work, we risk falling into the ethical trap of rational inhumanity in the same of creating universal good,” (Longo, 155) but we don’t have to think that everything we do for the sake of quickness and efficiency will be for used for evil. We do have the right to question how our work will be used and I would hope what we create in any kind of media will be used for the greater good.
Hurst, N. (2013, April 24). Meet the woman who launched a billion clicks. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2013/04/susan-kare/
Longo, B. (2010). Human+Machine Culture. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 147-168). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.
Renteria (2016, March 20). Writing for the Web – Simplify Your Words! WriteTechie. Retrieved from https://writetechie.com/2016/03/20/writing-web-simplify-words/
Thatcher, B. (2010). Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 169-198). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.
About Roger RenteriaProfessional Life: I am a technical communicator, writer, and presenter. Hobby Life: I'm a blues dancer, hiker, and foodie.
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