Posted by Amery Bodelson
In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).
Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.
I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.
I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.
Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).