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Master tech; don't let it master you

When I started my working life 25 years ago, digital technology was a peripheral service. Tech people did tech and everyone else did their work.

But because the tech was quite accessible, I was able to be a bit of a hybrid. As an English grad bookseller who didn't see himself as a tech person, I could also offer basic hardware support and got to know about sales systems; I learned enough graphic design to produce in-house publications; then later, I became a book editor who could build pretty websites with an intermediate understanding of coding.

Then came Web 2.0. It became too difficult and too time-consuming to develop websites as an individual. Large teams of specialists took over web development and an indie freelance like me couldn't compete. Tech went one way, I went another.

That's alright in a world where IT is IT and work is work, but now vastly more people work in digital technology, not only in traditional quantitative fields, but notably in education, healthcare and the creative industries. If you're reading this, you most likely work in tech.

So now I'm catching up. I've been studying contemporary design thinking, user experience approaches, that JavaScript that shifted me away from web development when I had writing to do, and the Python coding that can ask questions of the web.

It's invigorating, with some wonderfully democratic focus on accessibility and equity. The intention of many of the teachers is to spread technical knowledge far and wide, and not allow it to be corralled and controlled by just a few experts.

Massimo Banzi, founder of the Arduino project, puts it best:

If you know how to design and build things, you can affect the world that's around you. If you are not able to participate in the world of creation in the digital space, you're left out. Somebody else is going to design your world. If there's no innovation, if there is no renovation ... then one company decides that that's the way you do a certain thing, and that becomes the only answer and nobody debates that. ... I think it's important to be masters of the technology.

As I learn, I've been reminded of a startling, obvious fact: every object and every interface and every digital artefact we engage with is deliberately designed, the result of a series of decisions. We, everyday users, individuals, can become part of those design decisions. With tools like mass education and mass communication, we can empower ourselves to become part of the design process of our world. We can have a say on the problems we want solved and a direct part in their solution.

Constant education - in technology as well as healthcare, media, local politics, law, economy, etc. - is a way to gain some agency over our future. Let's not get left behind.


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