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Lost in translation
Daniel Reed on straddling the intellectual divide
between technology experts and policymakers.
There is an old joke:
June 30, 2011
Q: What do you call someone who
speaks only one language?
A: An American.
Certainly, being monolingual limits and constrains one’s exposure to
and understanding of the cultural and
linguistic diversity that is our global
human heritage. Alas, I fear the same
is true in far too many domains where
cross-cultural fertilization would inform and enlighten all parties.
I will spare you a meandering discourse on the theory of language origins, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or
the Indo-European language tree.
Nor will I digress to discuss the intellectual divide that separates the sciences from the arts, for C.P. Snow has
written far more eloquently about
that than I can. Rather, I want to focus on a far more constrained and
practical intellectual concern, the
cultural gap separating technologists
and policy experts.
Over the years, I have learned that
being bilingual in matters of science
and technology and in matters of
strategy and policy is far rarer than I
might have first hypothesized. Those
of us with Ph.D’s, Sc.D’s, or research
M.D.’s speak a particular argot largely incomprehensible to the general
public and even to the learned and
sophisticated in other domains. Similarly, those who live in the legislative
and policy world depend on a vernacular that seems obscure and obtuse to
those in technical domains.
The technical and policy communities lack shared cultural referents,
created all too often by endemic pressure to differentiate. In consequence,
the communities are often estranged,
lacking an ontology of discourse to address their common problems and exploit their complementary skills. The
power of consilience has long been
known, as the tale of the Tower of Babel makes clear.
And the Lord said, Behold, the people
is one, and they have all one language;
and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which
they have imagined to do. Go to, let us
go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one
Today, we have our own Babel of
misperceptions and miscommunica-tions at the intersection of technology and technical policy. (For a few
thoughts on consilience in a technological world, see my blog “Consilience:
The Path To Innovation,” Nov. 9, 2009.)
interpreting the signs
The linguistic and cultural divergence
of technologists and policy experts is
no more evident than in the way they
identify and select outcomes. If you
have ever felt compelled to explain
quantum efficiency when discussing
silicon solar cells and renewable energy sources, electron mobility and
leakage current when discussing the
future of smartphones, Shannon’s
theorem and the Heaviside layer when
explaining wireless communication,
or transcriptional gene regulation
when discussing the future of health
care, you live on the technological
side of the communication chasm.
Conversely, if you are facile with poll
dynamics and sampling error, macro-and microeconomics and their shifting theories of global economic impact, trade imbalances and structural
unemployment; if you understand
the distinct and important roles of
the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund; and if you are adept