I heard a story recently about the extreme polarization in our current American politics. The story goes that you can map the increase in health consciousness, especially around alcohol consumption, to increased partisanship in Congress. The theory goes that our Senators and Representatives used to spend a lot of time at the local watering hole, downing a few brewskis with the boys. And of course, the local pub wasn’t partisan, so often folks from both sides of the aisle would be there, with the benefit of some social lubrication, and that’s where the deals and alliances really got made. Not that our Congresspeople go to the gym after work instead and sweat in isolation with their headphones in, that social mileau doesn’t happen any more.
But I’m not actually trying to talk about politics here. I heard a story that struck me as very similar, but based in the halls of academia. The story teller was talking about the very early days of computers, when even the science departments didn’t have computers in each office. Instead, there was just one computer down in the basement and it took up a whole room. In order to use it, every scientist in the university had to sign up for a time slot. Then you’d wander down there with your boxes of punch cards and use your time slot to run whatever your algorithms were. The scientist who was talking about this experience was reminiscing fondly at the “watercooler” effect this had, where scientists from completely different disciplines would be standing around in the computer room waiting for their turn and chatting about whatever they were working on. He was lamenting a little bit that there is now a more extreme silo effect in science in academia than there used to be, and he felt it was related to that incidental chit-chat that used to happen in the computer room. These days, no one has a need to leave their office or talk to other departments as a matter of course.
I know I said I wasn’t talking about politics, but many people I know are worried about the extremes we are experiencing in our civil discourse. Not just around politics of course, but around all kinds of things from what kind of truck you drive to big things like race and gender. It’s not so much that we disagree about these things – we have always disagreed about these things. It’s that we’ve lost the ability to have a discussion over a few beers, or in the computer room, or whatever, about things we disagree about.
A good family friend was a pastor for many decades. Eventually he left the ministry and got a degree in Technical Communication and taught Tech Comm as a career. I asked him about that switch, and he said that in his ministry he observed that the most common problem people had was really rooted in a communication breakdown. He felt that he was called to be of better service by teaching people Communication skills than by continuing as a pastor. I already had a degree in Technical Communication by the time he and I had that conversation, and I felt a lot of solidarity around our mutual professions.
Fast forward another decade or so. My pastor friend has passed on after a long and amazing life, and my Technical Communication degree has somehow morphed into a heavy-on-the-marketing freelance career. Recently, I decided to focus on moving my career toward something heavier on the Technical side and less on the Communication side, and I’ve been pondering about where exactly I want to find my niche. I’m taking a course in Data Science, and have been pondering about how to make a “mission statement” of sorts about where I want to go from here. I don’t have it nailed down yet, but I know it has something to do with this gap the exists between people.
One of the things that has stood out to me in recent years is the massive amounts of data we have access to as a society, but the difficulty in communicating that data in a way that allows the average citizen to gain much from it. Sure, we need to work on data literacy for the average citizen. But is there a way that my particular skills and talents can help bridge that gap? I think there is. I’m still in discovery mode, but I think there’s a niche where I can use data in a compelling and user-friendly way to bridge the gaps between people. That might be an extra level removed – teaching people how to use data to communicate more effectively, or it might be direct – actually presenting and standing in the gaps.
I’m just barely starting down this path, so I’m not sure where it’s going. I wanted to write this now so I can look back on it in a couple years and ask myself, “Did I end up where I meant to? If not, did I end up somewhere better? If not, what action do I need to take to get back on track?”