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Communications of the ACM


Being Bilingual: Speaking Technology and Policy

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

There’s an old joke, “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 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 elequently 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.

Divergent Ontology

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 PhDs, ScDs or research MDs 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 poliy world depend on a venacular 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 another's speech.

Today, we have our own Babel of misperceptions and miscommunications at the intersection of technology and technical policy. (For a few thoughts on consilience in a technological world, see Consilience: The Path To Innovation.)

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 smart phones,  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 at reading the nuance of diplomatic language, then you live on the policy side of the communication chasm.

There are, of course, other telltale signs.  If you own more than one tee-shirt covered with Maxwell’s equations (and you can explain them) and a statistically significant fraction of your wardrobe is festooned with technical conference logos, then you are definitely on the geek side.  Conversely, if you own a closet full of suits, perhaps some bespoke, and you choose the suit, matching tie, shoes and fountain pen, based on your mood, those you expect to meet and the venue, then you are likely a policy wonk.

 I exaggerate, of course, on both counts, to illustrate a point, though elements of the humorous stereotypes are real.  I resonate with both caricatures for my closet is filled with both conference tee-shirts and with a variety of suits.  But, -- and this is important -- I do not wear them at the same time.

Bridging the Divide

How do we cross the intellectual divide, providing technical advice to policy experts in ways that they find useful and actionable?  Equally importantly, how do we translate policy constraints – political, economic and social – into contexts intelligible and actionable by technical experts?

The key in both cases is to respect the differences and value each bring, and place one’s self in the other’s situation.  If you are a technical expert, this often means finding intuitive analogies that capture the key elements of the technical idea. For example, I recently explained the potential economic advantage of cloud computing by saying that it brought some of the efficiencies to organizational IT that big box retailers brought to consumer goods. 

Had I explained the design of a cloud data center, the networking and content distribution network, and the infrastructure optimizations, I would have bewildered my audience.  I simply wanted them to understand that familiar economic forces were driving the cloud transition and raise awareness of the policy implications.   Any new technology can both create new jobs and spur economic development and disrupt an industry, creating unemployment, which then strains the educational and social safety net.

Likewise, if you are a policy expert or a technical person facile in policy, you must explain the constraints and practicalities of government actions and budgets to your technical partners. As a technologist, one must respect those realities rather than disparage them.  The policy world is a complex, dynamic system with deep and unexpected consequences from almost any major change. 

It is a critical fallacy to believe that if a legislator or staff member had access to the same facts as a scientist or technologist, then he or she would draw the same conclusions about policy implications as the technologist.  Policy discussions may begin with data gathering, but their outcomes are based on values, priorities and tradeoffs.  Any government’s agenda must be balanced against a myriad of social and political constraints, including education, social welfare and national defense.  Often this means finding ways to compromise and achieve part of one’s goal. Ten percent of the objective can be victory and should be celebrated as such. There is often time to seek the next ten percent at a future engagement.

Moving Forward: Technical Policy Ambassadors

For those of us in science and technology, I believe we must encourage more of our colleagues to become bilingual.  An increasing fraction of our world is shaped by technology, and it is incumbent on us to facilitate the discussion of technology, social welfare, economic development, environmental policy, security and privacy, health care and medicine, defense and protection, and innovation and discovery.  If we are respectful of political constraints, we can help policymakers understand the pace of technological change and its possibilities and recognize that even a national legislative body cannot overturn the laws of physics.

Only by being ambassadors to both our technical colleagues and our policy partners can we constructively shape our future. We must find and expand those shared cultural referents, creating an ontology of technical policy discourse, and we must reward our colleagues for such engagements.

Remember, it’s okay to wear the conference tee-shirt and the suit, just not at the same time.



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This article shows one of the many reasons that central planning actually does not work. No matter how much geekspeak a policy wonk understands, or how much economics a technogeek understands, one size does not fit all. Community organizers and career politicians make for very poor technology bosses. Even in economics, there's only one US Congressman at this time that fully understands the damage that false (fiat) fED currency does to the body politic, for example.

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