Technology, Transparency, and Communications

A funny podcast episode recommendation and three important takeaways as we prepare our kids for the jobs of the future.

Technology, Transparency, and Communications

Have you ever heard a non-native English speaker speak, and have them mispronounce a bunch of words only to realize they must have learned English by reading and that's why they're mispronouncing things?

Sometimes our language gives us away; it tells people things about us that perhaps in the past might have gone overlooked. It's why language (and sales) is so important.

Well-crafted language tells a bigger story than the sum of the words.

Listen to This Podcast Episode

I listen to Nilay regularly, but this episode is different. He was consulted on intellectual property issues for a podcast exploring this Florida case. Turns out Nilay is an IP Lawyer, or at least was in the past.

Underunderstood: Why is This Sheriff Arresting Fire TV Sellers? — Decoder with Nilay Patel — Overcast

The story in this episode is rediculous. An 80-year old was arrested for selling "jailbroke" firesticks (Amazon Fire TV dongles).

Seriously I don't want to ruin it for you. It's a funny episode. It reminds me of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the way the narrators sometimes talk over the sheriff to give the corrected technology interpretation.

3 Important Takeaways

There were three things I took away from this episode. Things that I believe technical people forget or don't realize when they hear stories like this. Things that will influence how we prepare our kids for the next generation of work.

I often suggest that I'm not very technical... but that's (1) compared to the really smart software developers I've worked with, and (2) because I am more proud of the non-technical stories I tell rather than any technical understanding I bring to a conversation.

This sheriff takes being "non-technical" to a whole new level. If you're in a position to make decisions (in this case, over who gets prosecuted for intellectual property violations) you must understand more about the technology. This is different from the past.

What makes it different is that there used to be more trust in the authority: "Oh, the sheriff's speaking". There was also less transparency and we counted on the authority to tell us what was going on. This sets the context for the following observations:

  1. Communications. The sheriff's poor understanding of the technology and incorrect language leads people to questions his true motivations. This breeds distrust. Leaders need to pause, ask questions, try to not be dismissive of what they don't know. The sheriff doesn't need to be a technical expert, but needs to at least acknowledge that such expertise matters and needs to influence everything from the laws, to the enforcement programs, to the communications about the department's activity. Of course, this isn't just a public policy thing we should expect from officials. I have seen the same communications weakness in corporate America discounting technology, or the capabilities of technology, in order to shore-up an existing practice or process.
  2. Transparency. Is this story about cracking down on intellectual propery theft, or is it about protecting the cable "monopolies"? I once tweeted something about Time Warner being a monopoly (with an example), and almost immediately started getting threatening calls at home. So, I'm willing to bet this is "collaboration" between two old parts of the economy to protect profits and legacy power. There is a growing distrust of institutions becuase they're not behaving like they realize the increased transparency that social media provides. The old advice, act like anything you do will be on the front page of the NY Times, is even more relevant these days. The next generation is gorwing up with transparncy that's causing them to, at a minimum, be more skeptical of institutions. Poor communications that can be easily fact-checked on Google or Twitter squanders trust. This would be a good and actionable insight to take to a digital strategy for any big company these days.
  3. Old ways don't always translate. When are we extending old policies for new ways, and when are we just jumping through hoops to protect the establishment? It's easy to understand the sentiment. A creator's work should be protected, whether it's in-print or digital. But, at some point the whole thing falls apart because digital breaks things too much. Maybe at that point we need new rules. A great example of this is playing out before our eyes in big tech and monopolies. Is Facebook a monopoly? Is Google? In my limited understanding, one quick monopolistic test is around pricing power. Yet, many of their products are free, so can they even be a monopoly? Can we define the market market categorization to demonstrate that they are (or are not) monopolies? These are complex questions, but... we have to be ready to re-evaluate policies that no longer work after substantial technical change. A simpler example... I couldn't put a zipcar on an expense report because it was a bundled price (tolls, gas, etc) and so looked to be outside policy guidelines. Yet, it was both much cheaper for the company and incredibly easier for the employee!

You may notice I tried to make this circular. Each of the three things above are interrelated.

How we communicate helps people understand that we're considering their issues as they relate to the laws (or in the more general case of the "process").

If we provide transparency between how we map between the policies and the technology, we build trust that helps us learn more about all those impacted by our decisions.

Once we have trust, we're able to reimagine the old ways of doing things using the current context (technology, culture, business) to afford the same sorts of protections we admire but in a way that makes sense in today's world.

All three bits matter, and together are changing the way the world "works" as we get even more deeply down the technology-in-every-aspect-of-life rabbit hole. Even for a simple* sheriff.

* By simple, I mean a well-defined job that one wouldn't think needs to be very technical. The opposite of simple might be my job, which was very difficult to explain to anyone not in the industry (and, arguably, to many people in the industry).