Freakonomics, But For Good
Freakonomics was a fun read, but it was also very effective propaganda for neoliberal economics. Rather than saying, “Believe what I believe!” it said, “Let me tell you a story.” That story just happened to contain a message about how the authors look at the world, in the same way that the legends and parables of old just happened to teach listeners right from wrong: by example rather than by hectoring, and so effectively that by the time the second book made misleading claims about climate change, a large chunk of the readership was ready and willing to be swayed.
Progressives don’t seem to be nearly as good at this game as the “respectable right”. I really enjoy books like Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas and Frase’s Four Futures, but that’s like saying that devout Catholics enjoy going to Mass. The overwhelming majority of software developers that I know don’t read books like that: while they’re insightful and informative, they aren’t entertaining.
They also aren’t accessible or welcoming, and this has become our side’s other great failing. A lot of the responses on Twitter to Cathy O’Neil’s recent piece in the New York Times almost seem designed to confirm technologists’ belief that social scientists have wandered off into some irrelevant corner of hyperspace. It’s not a fair criticism–the language her critics are using isn’t any more esoteric than that used by data engineers–but that’s not actually a compliment, and it doesn’t matter. If your audience doesn’t have the background to understand what you’re saying, then you either find a more approachable way to say it, or you acknowledge that you care more about being right than about being effective.
And then there’s this:
The best, most revolutionary work against power is marginalized precisely because it troubles the powerful. If “the price to gain admission” is the soul of our work—our critique—then I do not know if admission is worth the price.
People don’t care if we martyr ourselves or not. They dont care if something is our best work or if it troubles the powerful. They care about whether we’re actually going to be able to make their lives better, and they won’t believe us if we keep using words like “synecdoche” or tell them that we need to decolonize computing. We do, but saying it that way is going to close ears rather than open minds.
Which brings me to my failed “Stuff That Actually Matters” project. I envisioned this as a collection of essays, but I now realize that throwing earnest thought pieces at people who don’t yet believe that there’s anything in them worth learning isn’t going to make a difference. What we need is something like Freakonomics, but for good: something that says, “Hey, come here, let me show you how the world really works.” These books are great examples; if you know of others, I’d be grateful for pointers.