Tech bloggers and the poverty of style

I created my writing habit by performing it over a decade (and still continuing). When I first started blogging in 2008, I told myself I would write at least 2,000 words a week. By some conspiracy of circumstances, but particularly my voracious reading habit at the time, I found this target to be quite easy. So it quickly became 5,000, and then 10,000. I kept this pace up well into 2011, when it slowed because I was studying to become a journalist and many of the words I had, to write, were published in places other than my blog. The pace has been more or less the same since then; these days, I manage about 1,000-2,000 words a week.

At first, I wrote because I wanted to write something. But once it became a habit, writing became one of my ways of knowing, and a core feature of my entire learning process irrespective of the sphere in which it happened. These days, if I don’t write something, I probably won’t remember it and much less learn it. How I think about writing – the process, beginnings and endings, ordering paragraphs, fixing the lengths of sentences, etc. – has also helped me become a better editor (I think; I know I still have a long way to go), especially in terms of quickly assessing what could be subpar about an article and what the author needs to do to fix it.

But this said, writing is really an art, mostly because there’s no one correct way to do it. An author can craft the same sentence differently to convey different meanings, couched in different spirits; the complement is true, too: an author can convey the same meaning through different sentences. In my view, the ergodicity of writing is constrained only by the language of choice, although a skilled author can still transcend these limitations by combining words and ideas to make better use of the way people think, make memories and perceive meaning.

This is why I resent a trend among some bloggers – especially people working with Big Tech – to adopt a style of writing that they believe is ‘designed’ to make communication effective. (I call this the ‘Gladwellian style’ because it only reminds me of how Malcolm Gladwell writes: to say what the author is going to say, then to say it, and then to remind the reader of what the author just said.)

I work in news and I can understand the importance of following a simple set of rules to communicate one’s point as losslessly as possible. But the news space is a well-defined subset of communication more broadly, and in this space, finding at least one way to make your point – and then in fact doing so – is more important than exploring ways to communicate differently, with different effects.

Many tech bloggers undermine this possibility when they seem to address writing as a science, with a small and finite number of ways to get it right, thus proscribing opportunities to do more than just get one’s point across, with various effects. Writing in their hands is on one hand celebrated as an understated skill that more engineers must master but on the other is almost always wielded as a means to a common end. (Medium is chock-full of such articles.)

There’s none of the wildness writing is capable of – no variety of voices or no quirky styles on display that an organic and anarchic evolution of the writing habit can so easily produce. Most of it is one contiguous monotonous tonescape, interspersed every now and then with quotes by famous white writers saying something snarky about writing being hard. (Examples here and here.) This uniformity is also reflected in the choice of fonts: except for Medium, almost every blog by a tech person who isn’t sticking to tech uses sans-serif fonts.

Granted, it’s possible that many of these ‘writers’ have nothing interesting to say, which in turn might make anything but a sombre style seem excessive. It’s also possible some of them are just doing what Silicon Valley tech-bros often do in general: rediscover existing concepts like coherence and clarity, and write about them as if people didn’t know them before. We’ve already seen this with everything from household technology to history. It’s also probably silly to expect the readers of a tech blog to go there looking for anything other than what a fellow techie has to say.

But I’m uncomfortable with the fact that writing as a habit and writing as an art often lead limited lives in the tech blogging space – so much so that I’m even tempted to diagnose Silicon Valley’s employees’ relationship with writing in terms of the issues we associate with the Silicon Valley culture itself, or even the products they produce.


Fizzed-out futures

Initiatives are arising to plug holes in the Indian education system, or so they claim. Many are ambitious, some even overreaching, but they also exist in the company of those that are honest. However, the cause for concern is that such projects are being viewed as extracurricular to the prevailing education system-even by those who have founded the initiatives. Thoughtful engagement is sought after, an awareness of the “outside world”–a summation of the realities extraneous to the student’s chosen field–is deemed lacking and designated a goal.

Most such initiatives are by students, or recent graduates, and with them, they carry fresh memories of incomplete lessons and half-mentored theses. As their activities grow in scope–which they surely do–there is an attrition between a tendency to remain experimentalist and the certainty provided by going commercial through installing a secure source of support and a fundamental incentive. The last is necessary even though many students remain in denial of it: one man’s idea cannot be shared with the same intensity throughout unless there is a need to depend on it. Money, many fail to realize, maintains currency, too.

The prevalent belief is that the Indian way of learning sidelines the humanities: if a job doesn’t fetch a fat cheque, it concludes there is no point in studying for it. Unfortunately, however, such a view also degrades the pros of technical learning. Subsequently, the responses are disappointingly reactionary. If a student has found it difficult to inculcate a skill, he simply participates in the overarching institution of frustration and dissatisfaction, and assumes the problem is faced by everyone. That is never true, has never been. However, it finds enough purchase to surface as fixes.

In many parts of the country, young graduates and final-year students gather in small rooms on terraces and in garages. For the most part, they discuss the different activities they could perform to compensate for what they think they ought to have learned in the classroom but didn’t. They quickly conclude that original thought is missing-which is very true-and proceed to talk about what they’d need to inculcate it. These are, obviously, surface-level problems. As time passes, the incentive to meet each subsequent week and debate and act or whatever peters out. Essentially, such students’ and graduates’ concerns have been for the short-term.

The long-term concern, it seems, can be addressed more effectively at the individual level than at the systemic level. The institution can encourage extracurricular tasks, point at the dearth of invention and abundance of innovation, and build up an army of youngsters to fix the nation’s most pressing problems. However, the only solution that can pluck India out of this moshpit of unoriginality is to do what is required of all youngsters no matter where they are these days: ideate. Ideas, whether original or otherwise, are necessary; even better when they are distilled out from a knowledge pool that is vast.

Whatever the most dollar-guzzling problems are, the ones that are solved by continuous ideation are what will keep the machine from descending into a standstill. May the humanities be sidelined, may the rote-learner be celebrated, may technical learning signify the staple diet that deprives most Indian students’ of the indulgence of the arts-we are not in need of a paradigm shift to rectify matters. What we need most is to build ourselves to achieve even in the absence of expectations. What we need most is to transcend our cubicles and classrooms and disintegrate the institutionalized frustration. By not doing so, we are letting our communal objectives be defined by a chance mistake.