Categories
Culture

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.

Categories
Culture Life notes Op-eds

The virtues of local travel

Here’s something I wish I’d read before overtourism and flygskam removed the pristine gloss of desirability from the selfies, 360º panoramas and videos the second-generation elites posted every summer on the social media:

It’s ok to prioritize friendships, community, and your mental health over travelling.

Amir Salihefendic, the head of a tech company, writes this after having moved from Denmark to Taiwan for a year, and reflects on the elements of working remotely, the toll it inevitably takes, and how the companies (and the people) that champion this mode of work often neglect to mention its unglamorous side.

Remote work works only if the company’s management culture is cognisant of it. It doesn’t work if one employee of a company that ‘extracts’ work by seating its people in physical proximity, such as in offices or even co-working spaces, chooses to work from another location. This is because, setting aside the traditional reasons for which people work in the presence of other people,  offices are also designed to institute conditions that maximise productivity and, ideally, minimise stress or mental turbulence.

But what Salihefendic wrote is also true for travelling, which he undertook by going from Denmark to Taiwan. Travelling here is an act that – in the form practiced by those who sustain the distinction between a place to work, or experience pain, and a place in which to experience pleasure – renders long-distance travel a class aspiration, and the ‘opposing’ short-distance travel a ‘lesser’ thing for not maintaining the same social isolation that our masculine cities do.

This is practically the Protestant ethic that Max Weber described in his analysis of the origins of capitalism, and which Silicon Valley dudebros dichotomised as ‘word hard, party harder’. And for once, it’s a good thing that this kind of living is out of reach of nearly 99% of humankind.

Exploring neighbourhood sites is more socio-economically and socio-culturally (and not just economically and just culturally) productive. Instead of creating distinct centres of pain and pleasure, of value creation and value dispensation, local travel can reduce the extent and perception of urban sprawl, contribute to hyperlocal economic development, birth social knowledge networks that enhance civilian engagement, and generally defend against the toll of extractive capitalism.

For example, in Bengaluru, I would like to travel from Malleshwaram to Yelahanka, or – in Chennai – from T Nagar to Kottivakkam, or – in Delhi – from Jor Bagh to Vasant Kunj, for a week or two at a time, and in each case exploring a different part of the city that might as well be a different city, characterised by a unique demographic distribution, public spaces, cuisine and civic issues. And when I do, I will still have my friends and access to my community and to the social support I need to maintain my mental health.