Design expert Donald Norman has written that when people are anxious, they tend to narrow their thought processes. Conversely when people are happy, they become more creative and imaginative at solving problems. If this is true, it means that one of the best things a technical writer can do is create beautiful content that moves readers to a happier, more adaptive emotional state. Or so I contend.
Technical writers usually think of their job in functional terms: to help end users know something (such as how frequently an oil change is needed for your car) or do something (such as how to actually change the engine oil). Creating beautiful content is typically not seen as a core part of the equation. But what if technical writers thought of themselves as artists whose aim is to create a thing of beauty? Isn't that, in the end, what makes for a positive user experience?
“The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing." So goes one line in this passage from Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi novel about settlers on Mars. I think it's more true than we want to admit.
This is the informal code of woke social justice that I have come to observe in the era of social media: You absolutely must be doing social justice, and a doing a lot of it, or there is something very wrong with you. Yet you must not post about the social justice you are doing, because then you are virtue signaling. Yet if you say nothing, you shall be judged for your abominable silence. So you have to say something---but you better watch how you say it, or you may wish you had never said anything at all.
A journey through the Old Forest looks totally different from my day-to-day existence. Yet this passage from Tolkien is a pretty apt description of what I found life to be like in 2020, and continues to be like in 2021---a description that resonates more deeply with me than the Groundhog Day metaphor.
Vengeance is a common theme in fantasy fiction, and it is striking how well certain FF authors tell the truth about what a messy business it is. Are there parallels one could draw to life in America today? I think so. We live in a society where social media offers a robust and pervasive platform for condemning evil people but no framework for forgiving them even when they repent.
I've had both the pleasure and misfortune this week of reading three essays about the way technology is shaping us and our environment. Things are mostly terrible, and yet there are some glimmers of hope. One of the authors (Alan Jacobs) nods at the philosophical tradition of Daoism as a potential framework to guide our behavior in a way that is more productive than other solutions which so far have spectacularly failed. I don't claim to understand what Daoism is or how it could help, at least not yet. These are complex ideas---but also mind-blowing and super cool.
Last month Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a sobering investigative report about the dark side of the porn industry. His work inspired some concrete reforms designed to protect victims of crippling shame and sexual abuse. But are these reforms enough as long as porn continues on? Is the widespread availability of porn, now so easy to access via smartphones and the internet, a "stealth public health crisis" as one feminist scholar argues? If so, what other steps can be taken to address it?
To forgive is to cancel a debt, and to cease feeling anger towards a wrongdoer---whether or not they have repented. Wouldn't this go a long way in breaking the hate cycle that infects our divided culture, both in person and online? The question is fraught with complexity, and yet perhaps no one in history was better equipped to answer it than Martin Luther King, Jr. It's worth reflecting on his insights as we honor his legacy and look ahead at 2021.
With the new year comes new resolutions, a common one being to read new books that challenge you. The idea is that doing so will expand your mind, make you a better person. But is that the inevitable outcome of such an endeavor? English professor Micah Mattix doesn't think so.