Lost in Technical Translation

Every industry has it own language. I wouldn’t expect to be able to visit a conference on jet propulsion and understand the language. This is fine with me as I don’t need to understand jet propulsion to be productive in my life.

This brings me to the theme of this post: Internet technologies and online communication tools are innovations that can make a difference in the every day life of ordinary people, but the language we use to describe them can create a barrier to mass understanding and adoption. Unlike jet propulsion, the language of Internet technologies often needs translation into terms that an industry outsider can understand.

An example: I believe that RSS is a technology/concept that will eventually be used by a majority of Internet users in the future in one form or another. It is in its infancy now and how the world adopts RSS will depend, to some degree, on the language we use to describe it in these early days.

I recently witnessed the interaction below (names have been changed to protect the innocent)

Bob: So what is RSS?

Sally: Oh, it’s an XML-based syndication format

Bob: (dumfounded look)

Technical language and jargon will always have its place and the high-tech industry depends on it. However, at the point where the products of the industry touch ordinary people, some form of translation has to occur. Otherwise, the general non-technical public may continue a cycle of learned helplessness, where they give up on learning about technology because no one can explain (in simple terms) how it works and why they would want to use it.

What if the exchange above had gone like this:

Bob: What is RSS?

Sally: Oh, it’s a new way for you to be notified when a web site has been updated.

Bob: Why would I want to know that?

Sally: Because increasingly, people are depending on a wide variety of web sites for news. Using RSS and a “newsreader�? you can choose to be notified when your favorite web sites have been updated without getting email. It saves you time and increases your awareness.

Bob: Whoa- I want to know more about that!

The lesson here is that we need more translators. There are new technologies out there that may end up touching a majority of Internet users in the future. If we want these technologies to be adopted by the mainstream, we have to be able to describe them in terms that the mainstream can understand.