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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Technology, Journalism, and Politics: The Bermuda Triangle of Communication

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Shortly after the infamous Facebook hearings, the news seemed to swarm with critiques of how members of Congress approached their line of questioning. Of course, there were critiques of Facebook itself; of its shady relationship with Cambridge Analytica, of its irresponsible treatment of consumer data, and of its ethically questionable breaches of user privacy. Although these were in fact central concerns of the hearings, it seemed to me that the apparent technological illiteracy of our political leaders quickly became an equal, if not greater concern.  

Perhaps this focus is just something I noticed because I’m situated in the Silicon Valley and, as we all know (thanks to Facebook), our access to news is shaped by our own filter bubbles and echo chambers. However, I still think it’s worth talking about the fact that our lawmakers, as they revealed in their confused, meandering questions during the hearings, know very little about how Facebook even works. And if they’re struggling to understand the processes of such a prevalent and powerful social media entity, one has to wonder—how much do our lawmakers really know about our own government’s technology? Are they informed enough to make strategic policy decisions, or to implement effective regulations?    

The gap in knowledge between members of Congress and members of the tech community is more than just an informational issue—it’s a language issue. The most powerful lawmakers and the most powerful innovators in this country don’t seem to speak each other’s languages at all, which creates a broken system of communication and seriously impedes their ability to solve problems together.

I have noticed a tendency among older generations, and even members of my own generation who see themselves as disassociated with the tech industry, to self-identify as a “non-tech person,” and to use that label as an excuse not to make an effort to broaden their knowledge. The problem is, we can’t all afford not to be “tech people”—in fact, hardly any of us can. Whether we like it or not, technology is becoming a foundational part of our common life, and a baseline level of tech-literacy is ever-increasingly necessary if we hope to avoid a total communication breakdown.

As linguistic studies indicate, our language use reveals a great deal about how we think. Our vocabulary, our grammar, and our syntax all combine to create a complex system of information processing and communicating, which then plays a role in shaping our worldview and our encounters with reality.  While most studies of the interrelation between language, speech, and perspective focus on differences between speakers of languages like English, German, Arabic, or Spanish, some rhetoricians and linguists have identified similar differences within various discourses of a broader “language.” The difference in language use between the tech and non-tech communities, then, fits neatly into this latter category.

The danger here is that when we make little to no effort to understand a group’s discourse or use of language, we not only miss out on understanding what they’re saying, but also how they’re thinking, how they see the world, and why they believe what they do.

But it’s not just the “non-techies” that need to reevaluate the role they play in this breakdown of communication. It goes both ways.

Adrienne LaFrance published a wonderfully astute article in The Atlantic last week titled “Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Journalism,” which reveals yet another communication breakdown: that which exists between the burgeoning world of tech and the time-honored world of journalism. Similarly, as we have witnessed in President Trump’s assailments of journalists and accusations of fake news, there is yet another communicative breakdown between politicians and journalists.

Technology, Journalism, and Politics, then, seem to be situated in a kind of Bermuda triangle where all possibility for effective communication mysteriously disappears. Without making an effort to understand each other’s languages, the potential for collaboration and civil discourse among these three sectors will only continue to disintegrate. If we hope to solve problems with members of another discourse community, we first have to learn how to speak their language.

May 8, 2018

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