A tip to tech websites and reporters: Dumb things down

Credit: Getting Smart

I’ve been reading about technology for many years. I’m 26 now, and that means there’s been at least 10 years of frequent readings about the tech sector. In that time, I’ve learned a whole lot of valuable stuff about how technology works, which helps me greatly in both my own use and when helping others. But there’s one thing I’ve started to notice recently when reading the regular sets of tech websites I follow: They don’t actually use language designed for non-technologically-savvy users. And tech is a big topic; there are still areas I don’t fully comprehend (*cough* “blockchain” in cryptocurrency *cough*)

When The New York Times writes about politics, they specify the full name and occupation of the individual (“President Donald Trump”) before using a less formal term (“Mr. Trump”). That means if you’ve (somehow) avoided all the news since mid-summer 2016 and don’t know that Donald Trump is the president of the United States, The Times would give you that information. Trump is not the only individual they do that with; as far as I’ve seen, they always introduce a person by the title and first/last name before going with shorthands. So if there’s a person in the article the reader doesn’t know about, they can quickly understand the person’s significance.

But when it comes to technology news (I’m talking about major media organizations here with a tech focus, not fanpages or blogs), I’ve noticed they use abbreviations and language like everyone and their dog is supposed to know exactly what everything means. But if they want to actually increase their readership base (especially among non-tech-savvy individuals), they actually do need to start explaining some basic stuff. Dumb it down. Because you can’t jump to the top of the learning curve without starting at the bottom.

“AI” means “Artificial Intelligence”. “CTO” means “Chief Technology Officer”. “VPN” means “Virtual Private Network”. “Backdoor” is an accidental or deliberate flaw in security to allow someone to access a system without letting the active users know it. “iOS” is the operating system for Apple’s iPhone smartphones, alongside some other mobile hardware products. “Patch” is one of many terms for an update intended to fix a flaw (or multiple flaws). “HDR” means “High Dynamic Range”, essentially a camera setting that combines multiple captures of a scene, each capture having a different exposure mode, hoping to achieve normal colors throughout a photo, rather than an extremely bright sky or super dark corner in single-shot photos.

Depending on your level of expertise, these abbreviations and terms may be fully understood, partially understood, or never even heard of. And all three of these expertise levels are okay. It’s not your job to know every term about a topic when reading an article from a major press publication. And it’s really not that hard to explain some of them, like a “VPN”; writing this, I can explain it in just two sentences. That doesn’t cover the details, of course, but it lets the readers know what the heck the abbreviation even stands for.

Obviously, technology is a major, complex subject. How big of an explanation is needed will vary greatly from article-to-article, but there’s a huge difference between these two sentences to a non-tech-savvy individual:

“… but you can bypass that with a VPN.”

“…but you can bypass that with a VPN (“Virtual Private Network”), which, among many benefits, allows your Internet traffic to appear like it is coming from another country.”

Basically, the whole point here is: If you want to increase your readership, dumb tech down. Make it understandable to the average person on the street. Because they’ll likely know how driving works, but perhaps not how AI can improve self-driving vehicles by using LIDAR sensors to scan the surroundings, looping the data through 5G, and identify weak points that a combination of big data and machine learning can solve. I’m honestly not even sure that sentence made total sense, because I’ve seen the term “big data” thrown around so much and so casually I use it with only around 70% knowledge/understanding of it. If only tech websites gave brief explanations when writing about it…

Updated 09 May 2019 06:41 UTC+2: Grammar correction

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