Get Smart – From Wearable Technology to Talking

In 1965, Maxwell Smart used wearable information technology to share administrative information. Smart bumbled into action, while the anonymous woman, “Agent 99,” was the rational voice supporting him. Occasionally, he had to use his rotary telephone in his shoe only to confirm her advice from “Control”. The “shoe phone” became a pop culture symbol for things to come. The Smart Phone (maybe named after Maxwell Smart?) has now replaced the Shoe Phone. Then when talking to his supervisor a “cone of silence” was the secure communication space where tactics were discussed. The “cone of silence” was a transparent bubble where what was said could not be heard outside. This is an interesting metaphor for claims about transparency, when there is really secrecy instead.

Get smart means knowing your strengths, which may not come stamped by a post-graduate degree. I have been extremely lucky, because I am quick to synthesize ideas rather than follow procedures, especially procedural computer programming. I hate procedures, but in 1989 my girlfriend at the time taught me how critical administrative procedures are. She taught me why a “two-hole punch” with holes 2.25 inches from center to center in a cardboard file was necessary to organize hard copy (then when “soft copy” did not exist) grant applications. Punching holes in folders was the epitome of administrative manual labor to make this a uniform container for hundreds of documents. Today, there are still valuable non-technical skills needed. As always, proof reading, without software assistance, is a critical manual skill.

Get smart means “emotional intelligence.” This does not come only from reading the book by that name. It means knowing weakness in modulating your emotions. The “civility” discussions are related to that. Historically under Roman law, I was shocked that in displaying administrative discourse a man (then only specially selected men) could be ostracized, flogged, or executed for showing emotion, especially anger. There was no excuse accepted for demonstrative behavior. Those necessary qualities of behavior are still applicable, but without capital punishment. I would have been a goner long ago if it hadn’t been for the indulgence of supervisors. Other GovLoop discussions on conversations are good guides. However, there must be a place for emotion and intuition at work. For example, see here.

Get smart means knowing the interpersonal and political contexts of what is said or written. Reading between the lines is usually required. Plain writing does not necessarily clear that up. Long ago, in, “On Authority” Richard Sennett stated that writing in “active voice” (now perhaps a part of “plain writing”) rather than in anonymous passive voice would be a step forward in responsible communication. However, for example, in the sentence, “Today the House Committee on …..decided that ………legislation creates jobs” that active voice tells you nothing. Making mistakes and political decisions to handle linguistics mistakes are significant too. At HUD, I was very personally caught up in missing “,”, which I did not create, in a homeless program regulation. For want of a comma, many necessary shelter operating eligible funds were excluded. The missing comma kept me busy answering regulatory questions to the contrary. When I recommended a “technical correction” in the Federal Register be published to correct this at that time no one did anything about it. That was very stressful and disappointing for me, even though as a result it kept me in contract directly with homeless shelter providers.

Get smart means paying attention to co-workers, friends, family, spouse, or a partner. Nothing brings more stress to interpersonal relationships than carrying all the above home after work. Lingering stress makes for bad relationships. It is not easy, for men anyway, to focus on maintaining relationships when personal values and professionalism are at stake. Asking and answering the question “what do you do,” are not foundations for relationships. This GovLoop essay on conflict resolution has good advice important in professional and interpersonal contexts.

My point is only that being adept at some fundamental skills and attitudes is vital. They are not as fun as purely technical ones, however, they open more doors to doing technical stuff. After an eon I haven’t mastered any of these. Nevertheless, computer science and data science have caught up to me, i.e. recognition that their foundations are logic and linguistics, which establish coherent meanings of data. I am not a DBA or programmer because those are my weaknesses. I more or less know where a semi-colon goes in a sentence but not in script. I have decades of technical experience with GIS, SPSS, and SAS (a little with R), but don’t get Python or JavaScript. Natural language processing and Graph models play to my strengths.

Get smart means getting smart. Being aware of all this takes work. Being smart about the law, political motivations, and social context is part of our job. The old fashioned means of citizen engagement was and is talking to citizens and one another. There is no doubt that some of us are more comfortable and adept at that than others. Max stumbled when he talked, and got better advice from “Agent 99” than from any info coming in over his wearable device. Rather than being a last resort, talking should be first. I know I’d rather send email because I communicate better in writing, I think. Keep on talkin’.

Ghost Whisperers of Institutional Memory

Ghosts have needs. Memories, like dreams, need to be resolved, and that is how insights come. “Ghost Whisperer,” iRobot, and many crime shows depend on detective work based on access to other people’s memories. “Ghost Whisperer” character Melinda Gordon talks with ghosts so they can “move on” after resolving their memories and their insight and knowledge with the still living. Ghosts with lost memories plead for recognition, and only calm, measured, and respectful tones will bring them to life.

I have great memories from talking to older guys at HUD, who had worked on HUD’s “701” urban planning program. They were urban planners and architects educated in the 1950s, who remaining at HUD, traversed those disciplines’ remnants through the 1990s. The “701” program institutionalized and professionalized urban planning, but it became victim of its own success as well as by political change in the early 1970s.

These men had great stories, and they could not have cared more about the fate of cities. In the mid-1990s, one guy’s primary concern was “sustainability” but there was little attention to that then. Their thoughts were ahead of their time, not in a useless past.

Another friend spent 40 years at USDA (since retired, but still very active in his mission) and was at the forefront of introducing the internet to the government and he organized technology programs teaching thousands of youth in 4H clubs and schools. In the 1970s, he organized the digital transmission of President Carter’s press release text to Seattle about Mount St. Helen’s eruption.

Other friends were involved with the invention of magnetic storage disks that replaced paper tape, magnetic tape, or punch cards. These friends used large laser disks to provide documents and images to the public. Using what then was a significant adaptation, they used “listserv” instead of Twitter. In the 1990s, these friends and others created Americans Communicating Electronically, which was the first collaborative public sector eGovernment group. This was before the current so-called “Digital Revolution,” which is a phrase for a poor repetition of what started 20 years ago.

History may not be important for new government staff to motivate them to be whisperers. However, their jobs would be impossible without their elders’ committed work in technology.

What could you possible learn from older people? They are people who know underlying weaknesses of current technology or how derivative it is in comparison to original breakthroughs. For example, in a coffee shop, named “Crows Coffee” in Kansas City down the street from me, but not related, a guy my age came up to me saying “that stuff will cut you to ribbons.” I was dumbfounded at first, but only because I know about the history of cybernetics and system theory did I understand he was taking about the original use of paper tape which “stored” the code for analogue computers. When the perforated tape broke or unreeled, sharp edges cut people or more tape. Special glue was required to fix the program. He recounted the history of computers he had worked on from vacuum tube mainframes to minicomputers. With his tablet, thanks to the café’s Wi-Fi, he found pictures of those computers. He hardly talked to anyone interested in what he did. I couldn’t absorb the details of his life, and he couldn’t stop talking about the transition from analogue to digital computers. This is a story more about relating to other people than about technology.

Were it not for their lives and stories would I know a little bit about why and how stuff works. For example, it is a trite common place now to mention vaguely the “bug” in the machine of computer history.  The etymology (or entomology) of “bug” may not matter, but the word carries on and should not be trivialized. Does it matter that my use of the phrase “bug” in the machine is a reference to sociology books on technology: “The Ghost in the Machine” (Arthur Koestler, 1967) or the “The Machine in the Garden” (Leo Marx, 1964). Historical echoes matter whether belonging to people, books, or literature.

Young people need expertise that gets them out of their chairs and to step away from their computers. Administrative ghost whisperers, younger staff or not, should seek out older staff. That experience should not be disregarded as a novelty. Institutional memory does not belong to processers or SAN, it is not stored in files or on disks. Harbored in silence, mystery, and memory is insight into the origin of technological triumphs and failures. Even visions of past success might inspire young staff now. Warnings about political and personality intrigue offer sound advice about what and who to stay away from. Stories gained by clandestine or unpopular ways may yield facts that cannot be read from technology companies’ marketing material, administrator manuals, blogs, or user groups. This is not a platitude about respecting your elders. It is about not repeating past mistakes. Repeating past mistakes may be beyond your control when political leadership, who are under pressure to come up with something “innovative,” reject an agency’s status quo, only to repeat the costly failure of the past, which they may willfully ignore. It is not your fault

I’m not a techno-sceptic, and, as an Enterprise Information Architect, I’m immersed in data architecture and technology most of the time. Today, I concentrate on knowing why, when, and where “data science” makes sense and when it does not. Does this matter to staff told to “code” first and ask questions later? Does this apply to “agile” or “application driven” software development?

We do not need homilies, panegyrics, memorials, or prizes dedicated to women and men who made current technology possible. Older agency staff need respect.