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On cultivating a garden while the world is crumbling around you

by Tom Johnson on Sep 18, 2020
categories: writing

Last Monday was one of my lowest days of the pandemic. The wildfires burning up and down the west coast had made our air toxic, so I'd been indoors for the past four days. We'd already been at home all day because of the pandemic, but at least we could go for hikes and bike rides and walks. Now we just had the surrounding walls of our home.

And news feeds. All the news seems to only fuel the sense that the world was sliding downhill — the pandemic, police brutality (do not scan the publicfreakout subreddit on a daily basis), polarization of our society, the general unrest and daily protests, the political maelstrom (which will only get worse as the election nears), climate change (from fires to hurricanes on a weekly basis), toxic air (soccer practice canceled again!), coronavirus cases never ending, vaccines always so far off, kids at home all day, political scandal after scandal, and so on.

I don’t have to go into detail here, as everyone is experiencing this and worse (really, things could be much worse). I mean, even my favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan apparently snapped and posted a series of F-bombs on Twitter. When things like that happen, you know everyone is on edge.

Despite the world sliding downhill, because this was a weekday and I was at work (or WFH), I focused diligently on a documentation project detailing a new way to implement video commands with smart TVs. The gist of the project involves being able to watch television without having to use your remote (at least partly). The implementation and technology is interesting, sure, and the process neat in many ways, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was fiddling while the world burned. Not even fiddling, but maybe formatting a document on a computer with a hard drive moments away from crashing. I mean, with the world in the state it’s in, especially during these times, why was I and so many others focused on projects that, by comparison, seemed a bit trivial? Shouldn’t we refocus, especially tech companies with the clout to actually influence the social and physical landscape, on something more significant?

The technology is actually pretty interesting. After all, who doesn’t want to talk and interact with previously inanimate objects? But so many documentation projects at corporations fail to inspire. At a previous company, I documented widgets for ad tech. What’s ad tech? You know, you do some searches for something online, such as replacing a broken cabinet, and suddenly websites you’ve never visited show you ads for cabinets. Everywhere you go it’s cabinet ads, cabinet ads, and more cabinet ads.

Ad tech is all about tracking and identifying viewers in a PII (personally identifiable information) safe way so you can better personalize the ads you show them, targeting their interests with precision. The tech at this former company was so clever, it would gather dozens of details about your browser, not just capturing browser type and version and locale, but even your zoom level and other details — all in an effort to create a unique fingerprint. This fingerprint would be sold to ad companies to dynamically show matching ads on page load.

I spent a lot of cycles learning the technology to document these products. I learned what I needed to know, drafted the docs, and carried on from day to day focusing my energy this way. When I look back at the documentation I wrote for previous companies (not just this one but others), there’s not much I would hang on a wall. Documentation is relevant for maybe a few years before it’s replaced with something else or grows out of date. Regardless of how fine of a job I do, the overall worth of the content is not something that drives me. I’m proud of the content I create, don’t get me wrong. And it’s useful for the time. But I don’t have too many projects in which I’ve been personally invested and persuaded that I was somehow changing society for the good. I can’t imagine many roles in corporate tech that would fit that model.

Also, I’m not being entirely fair. The company that sold ad tech also used the same product to prevent bank fraud. I’m sure you’ve experienced these notifications — if you try to log into your bank account from a new computer, you might have to verify with a second-factor authentication to confirm your identity. How does the bank get an idea that the one signing in might be the wrong person? Beyond a new device, other factors similar to ad tech’s fingerprinting also get harnessed. This is one case where technology can be used for either good purposes (preventing fraud) or less honorable purposes (targeting consumers with ads). I’m not sure, but maybe much of technology has a double-edged sword like this, with the ability to use it for good/less-good purposes?

The same technology that lets you say voice commands to your TV (which might be hard to get excited about, even though the TV is now a central interactive hub in our home), also lets you interact with other devices in a similar way. Barely an hour goes by in our house without someone asking or speaking to Alexa, even if only to set a timer. I frequently ask Alexa to set an alarm, tell me the weather, let me know when sporting events start, tell me the news, set a reminder, open brown noise (before sleep)and so on. Also, having a screen that displays calendar events is incredibly helpful, as our Echo Show is prominently visible in the kitchen. We rarely miss events anymore because we have a constant and timely visual reminder. But even with all the positive uses, I had higher hopes for the impact of tech on the world. I hoped technology could do more, and it probably could if corporations chose to pursue less profitable directions. Then again, I enjoy having a job, so the profitable directions are essential.

I’m not picking on companies I’ve worked for. The same could probably be said for the majority of technology companies. How many tech companies are working on solutions that will transform the world in positive ways versus solutions that will simply earn higher corporate profits? For example, a lot of tech is about creating “sticky algorithms.” My ten-year-old is a serious Tik-Toker (she has created more than 300 Tik Tok videos). She goes nuts when one of her videos gets a lot of likes. She regularly tells me her most-liked video has 49 likes.

Engineers behind social media platforms focus on how to serve up the right content, perfectly personalized to increase engagement so that we’ll spend more time on the platform, becoming more addicted and dependent on the content. I admit my social media cocaine is Reddit. How about refocusing those algorithmic efforts on making school “sticky” and interesting? Is there an algorithm for learning that engineers are feverishly working on so that kids won’t dread distance learning? Kids are sitting for hours at a time in video classrooms or on Zoom, and it’s grinding them into the ground. Classes like P.E. or band just don’t work remotely. How about leveraging more of the VR or Peloton-like technology in educational contexts? Or even a simpler, less expensive idea, like providing computers that could actually load the websites and other quiz features teachers use? (Each of my kids was issued a Chromebook for school, and none of them use it due to various issues; they have other computers instead.)

Early on, in the pre-2000 days of the Internet, many people looked at the Internet and technology as a kind of saving mechanism for society, but those ideas look naive/premature now. I’m growing more skeptical about social media companies with mission statements to connect people together. They optimize for an algorithm to increase engagement. And unfortunately, the content that feeds those engagement algorithms is content that is sensational, shocking, outrageous, bizarre, mesmerizing, controversial, conspiratorial, visually stimulating, curious, short-form, click-bait prone, and as filling as junk food. If that’s what drives the algorithms that provide sticky lift/engagement, what hope do we have for technology to perform a saving mechanism? Can the algorithms be tweaked to optimize for more enriching content instead? Before Tik Tok, my kids used to get hooked on Harry Potter.

Tech companies focus on ways to monitor and measure engagement, and then to optimize for it. More views, more engagement, higher lift, more ad sales, more device sales. Given the way algorithms work, I’m not sure that the natural direction for technology is one that moves us out of this rut into something more transcendent. Is this the natural use and application of technology? Is there anything that I can work on all day from a professional writing perspective that would be worthwhile, maybe inspiring me with a sense of helping lift people up? Protests rage, air grows more toxic, death rates soar from corona, politics gets more Machiavellian, climate change worsens, while I focus my energy writing documentation so that people won’t need to use their remote control while watching TV.

Of course, I’m happy to have a job and to enjoy a comfortable living. My wife and I have been lucky to not experience layoffs, and no one in our family has been sick. We even managed to rent a house with a small pool in the backyard, which has been a godsend for our children. So I shouldn’t complain. But more and more I get the sense that I could be doing more, especially with my writing, and that too frequently I’m spending my time in ways that don’t have much impact. Shouldn’t I be writing about something more significant? Other days, I wonder if should even be a technical writer. Why I am one of the few bloggers in tech comm? Why do I write so much on a blog, whereas other technical writers do not? Maybe I should be in marketing instead of tech comm, or something else? I have endless creative energy. I have an endless well of ideas and thoughts inside me. Surely I could hit a home run with any corporate blog or similar efforts. But then I think back to my days as a marketing copywriter and grow uneasy about those directions as well.

A little bit of backstory on that. After I graduated from Columbia with an MFA, I taught writing for two years at the American University in Cairo in Egypt. During those two years of teaching, I realized a couple of things. First, while I liked encouraging intellectual debate among students in the classroom (I played the Socratic questioner role, as we were taught to do), I didn’t really care (not deeply anyway) if the students learned to write. No amount of feedback I provided seemed to substantially improve their writing, so teaching wasn’t so inspiring (maybe I was just a bad teacher). Also, more importantly, I didn’t want to be the writing coach. I wanted to be the writer. I wanted to be the one writing, not the one making comments on others’ writing.

When I left Egypt and returned to the US, I moved to Florida because my brother-in-law and sister lived there. My brother-in-law was a tech entrepreneur and had good contacts that got me a job as a marketing copywriter for an alternative health company. The alternative health company promoted health aids such as protein pills, chelation, barometric chambers, dietary supplements for weight loss, herbal supplements for fatigue, and more. I wrote all kinds of content, from web articles to press releases, newsletter content, pitches for radio shows, SEO-optimized content, product labels and descriptions, and more — all trying to basically promote snake oil.

Looking back, I did enjoy some taking some creative approaches in crafting content, but for all my efforts to promote protein pills (the company’s flagship product), the company never gave me any, and I never bought any. That pretty much summed it up. When I survey the variety of writing roles outside of technical writing, I can’t help but think they more or less fall into the same mold — trying to get others to buy a company’s products, to encourage adoption of some corporate service or product. The best you can hope for in these writing situations is to work with a service or product that you feel invested in. But when that’s not the case, writing marketing copy for these situations is worse than writing documentation because it requires more creative energy and will likely exhaust any writing momentum outside of work. At least with technical writing, you can tell the truth about the products. You are, at least, helping someone create a software solution. You’re not usually trying to sell them something; they’ve probably already bought it, and now you’re just helping them use it or set it up. You’re helping, not selling.

But is it too much to want to be part of something more? To be invested in something that you believe passionately about? On the other hand, I’m not sure that I believe passionately about anything. Critical thinking? Exploratory writing? I honestly don’t know. I’m not religious, I’m not earthy, I’m not vegan, and my only hobbies are sports and writing.

Those are the sort of thoughts I had last Monday during what was my lowest day of pandemic. I curled up on my bed and watched a few episodes of 11.22.1963. Admittedly, at one point Hulu failed to show the 11.22.1963 tile to resume watching, so I gritted my teeth, held down the mic button on my remote, and said “james franco shows on hulu.” Then for the next few episodes, I fantasized about traveling back to another time, when the air was clean and the worst problems were about stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK.

The next day, the morning was the same. More documentation about getting rid of that remote. More updates here and there on other products. But then, by some miracle, the air quality index (AQI) lowered to 98 (orange!) in the area near our favorite hiking trail, and my wife and I took off in the early afternoon to once again hike a trail that we love (Rancho San Antonio). During the hike, I started listening to A Little History of Philosophy, which is a survey of philosophers in the Western tradition. The chapter on Voltaire caught my attention. Voltaire wrote Candide to make fun of a philosopher (Leibniz) who argued that God had made the world using the least possible amount of evil required. Sure there was evil in the world, but God had used the least amount of it required to bring about the best of all possible worlds (or something). Voltaire lampoons this idea through a series of worsening situations that Candide experiences (with people being flogged, hung, burned alive, buried in earthquakes, raped, disemboweled, and more), all while Candide maintains optimism about the situation actually being for the best, as his philosopher teacher, Pangloss, had taught him.

Near the end of the book, Voltaire says that “we must cultivate our garden,” which is an argument for paying less attention to the crumbling world around us and instead focusing on a project within our scope, something we can work on without getting too caught into the chaotic world around us. Here’s how The School of Life explains what Voltaire meant:

What did Voltaire mean with his gardening advice? That we must keep a good distance between ourselves and the world, because taking too close an interest in politics or public opinion is a fast route to aggravation and danger. We should know well enough at this point that humans are troublesome and will never achieve – at a state level – anything like the degree of logic and goodness we would wish for. We should never tie our personal moods to the condition of a whole nation or people in general; or we would need to weep continuously. We need to live in our own small plots, not the heads of strangers. At the same time, because our minds are haunted and prey to anxiety and despair, we need to keep ourselves busy. We need a project. It shouldn’t be too large or dependent on many. The project should send us to sleep every night weary but satisfied. It could be bringing up a child, writing a book, looking after a house, running a small shop or managing a little business. Or, of course, tending to a few acres. Note Voltaire’s geographical modesty. We should give up on trying to cultivate the whole of humanity, we should give up on things at a national or international scale. Take just a few acres and make those your focus. Take a small orchard and grow lemons and apricots. Take some beds and grow asparagus and carrots. Stop worrying yourself with humanity if you ever want peace of mind again. Who cares what’s happening in Constantinople or what’s up with the grand Mufti. Live quietly like the old turk, enjoying the sunshine in the orange bower next to your house. This is Voltaire’s stirring, ever relevant form of horticultural quietism. We have been warned – and guided…. > Gardening is no trivial pastime, it’s a central way of shielding ourselves from the influence of the chaotic, dangerous world beyond while focusing our energies on something that can reflect the goodness and grace we long for. (What Voltaire Meant by ‘One Must Cultivate One’s Own Garden’)

Yeah, who cares what’s going on in Constantinople or with the grand Mufti! I’m better off growing some tomatoes and cucumbers instead of fretting about the decline of the world. (Of course, if Constantinople was burning and the air was toxic, gardening might not have been an option.)

Voltaire was writing at a time when science and reason had inspired the Enlightenment. Is that context too different from our time, when the advance of technology inspires us to look hopefully at the world’s problems and think we can maybe solve them with the right technical algorithms?

Voltaire’s advice about cultivating a garden soothes me a bit. I can’t change the crumbling world around me. I can’t “save humanity.” I can’t even remove one toxic particulate of matter from the air. But maybe I can pick a project that will keep me busy, like cultivating a garden, and tend to it, to give me peace of mind.

To be clear, the garden is a metaphor. I have no intention of taking up actual gardening. But I do feel like a writing project (something that isn’t just a reflection of best practices for tech comm) might be worthwhile. Maybe a series of essays outside of tech comm.

While I like the garden metaphor, I think it also reflects a defeatist attitude, like a jaded old man who casts off the world, builds a big fence around his house, and keeps himself shut-in. Adopting a position of self-isolation or hermitage isn’t necessarily the philosopher’s way. According to Stephen West’s summary of Hannah Arendt’s ideas in the Philosophize This! podcast, specifically Episode #136 … Hannah Arendt - The Banality of Evil, Socrates and Aristotle were active in the public sphere and believed that dialogue (the dialectic) was a primary mechanism for intellectual inquiry. Arendt argued that after Socrates’ death, Plato wandered the world (angry, disillusioned with politics) and returned years later to embrace a contemplative, much less public life. This turn from the public life of frequent Socratic debate to a private, more isolated, contemplative life signaled a turn inward with philosophic practices that philosophers would mistakenly adopt for the next 2,400 years.

These more contemplative philosophers adopt this inward position (outside of the public sphere) in part to avoid contaminating their thoughts with too many external influences, in hopes of arriving at some profound breakthrough. Arendt argues that this isn’t the only way of philosophy. West explains:

Socrates and Aristotle both thought that the life of a philosopher should be nothing like locking yourself away in some insular world. Socrates was the philosopher of the Athenian agora. To him, philosophy was engaging your fellow citizen. If philosophy was going to produce anything meaningful, it would be through conversation with someone else. For Aristotle, philosophy and political engagement were two things that were inseparable. These two thinkers were fans of what Hannah Arendt would eventually call the active life.

Part of the reason Arendt adopted a more active position, embracing an “active life” rather than a “contemplative life,” is due to her historical context with Nazi Germany. West continues:

When Hannah Arendt was a young woman living in Germany just before the outbreak of World War II, she was engaging in a life that was similar to the contemplative life of someone like Plato…. But when the political events of World War II began to unfold, she looked at herself, and started to feel like being a philosopher was a bit naive and silly. What good is locking yourself in a closet thinking about stuff all day when the world around you is crumbling? Philosophers of her time were sitting on their hands living this safe, contemplative life of Plato, when what the world truly needed, she thought, was a lot more people living the active life of Socrates and Aristotle…. Philosophy, practiced in the traditional contemplative form, has failed to provide anything remotely of value in the real world because, she would say, it doesn’t take place in the real world.”

You can listen to more of the podcast here:

What would Arendt say about Voltaire’s position of cultivating a garden? Is shutting yourself off from the world a practice that Socrates and Aristotle would take? It seems that cultivating the garden aligns more with the inward, contemplative life rather than a more active engagement in the political realm.

Juxtaposing these two ideas gives us a lot to think about in our current context. We aren’t living in a pre-World-War II context, with Nazis rising to power. But not many would disagree that our world is crumbling in bad ways. What, then, is the role of a (technical) writer during this time? What can a person do? Do we still spend dawn to dusk working on documentation that won’t have an impact on the crumbling world around us?

I don’t have much influence or insight to change anything (at least not of any significance – I can’t even change myself). I just want to feel like I’m part of something larger that is contributing towards a better world. For many years, I felt that tech was moving us in that direction. And in many ways, I still hope it is. For sure, few of us are willing to throw away our smartphones and cancel our Internet service. Maybe at the end of the day, we can promote more worthwhile use cases for the technologies we document, even if the applications are side hobbies that are secondary to larger profit goals.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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