Is Technology Neutral?
The nature of expertise
In June, we sent our content creator and account manager Jess McMurray to ‘The Future of Television Production’; a seminar event being held at Dock 10 in Media City, Manchester – home of many key production and broadcast centres, including the BBC.
The event was – quite simply – brilliant, and the opportunity to hear from experts in the field – experts who had selflessly offered their time – was a true privilege. But it was interesting that it wasn’t only the content of their discussions that was food for thought. A common theme that emerged within each talk was the nature of ‘expertise’; what characteristics a person should – or could – possess to be considered an expert, and how people can reach a state of expertise.
For instance, in the last talk of the day, there was a heavy focus on the way in which the Unreal Engine _ most traditionally employed in the field of gaming _ is now a key component of virtual studio design. The contributors talked at length about how this meant reaching out to gaming engineers and bringing them over to the ‘dark side’ of broadcast. Discussions ranged around whether it caused any particular issues in getting these professionals from a completely different industry up-to-speed on broadcast issues. What elements of their expertise mattered the most and which could be newly acquired? What was the best way to mesh different fields of knowledge – especially when one form of knowledge is about the industry, whilst the other is about technical implementation?
These themes could also be identified in the discussion focusing on the future of television for younger people. The panel itself was made up of a number of high level producers and professionals who have been working in the industry for a number of years, most at least 10. Time working in a field is undoubtedly the way that expertise grows, but when the question is how to change things in changing rapidly times, how much can a history of knowledge be a burden to truly disruptive innovation? Did this panel need someone significantly younger to be adding their perspective on the matter?
The same has been true for us at Xpresso working in the field of broadcast. CEO Fiorenza Mella has worked in the industry for over twenty years, and before moving to the communications side of things she operated as a sales engineer. But the broadcast industry hasn’t just evolved rapidly, it has fundamentally reshaped itself in the wake of IP. How beneficial is her legacy knowledge? Could it perhaps be a hindrance? Is new blood with new ideas the only way to ensure innovation?
The answer is probably yes and no. Mentality is what matters the most. Building up expertise in the area is valuable – perhaps even vital – so long as you don’t remain slavish to the ‘old ways’. An open mindset and willingness to think completely differently is what is key. But whilst this can be easy on an individual level, research suggests that adding diversity to teams is the best way of securing the benefits of both old knowledge and new thinking.
It is important to stress that the insights that all of the speakers delivered at the event held incredible value – they genuinely did display this kind of ‘old knowledge, new thinking’. It is clear that they know their particular areas of operation inside and out – and in raising questions about the nature of expertise, we are by no means questioning the idea that they are experts. But the question we are seeking to raise is one that is seen in fields extending well beyond that of technology; how does diversity, representation and the experiences of people – rather than their academic training or knowledge – inform the way that they can be considered ‘experts’ in the field?
This was particularly addressed within the ‘Women in Tech’ and RISE mentorship program. The fundamental question to be asked here was, do we need women in technology industries? If so, why? Because we have a moral duty towards equality, or because there are actual benefits to diversifying the groups we work with?
The technology field is a particularly difficult one to apply this question to. Some business arenas – especially B2C industries that deal with the desires and needs of the public – are less heavily reliant on technical expertise, and benefit greatly from ‘expertise’ that embodies plurality of opinion and experience. Certainly rhetoric concerning representation is highly important in issues of governance and public policy, where ideologies feature as heavily as technical execution in decision making processes.
But does this still stand true in industries such as broadcast where the goal being pursued is highly technical in nature? Is technology neutral in the way that it applies to different genders, races and backgrounds, and therefore less in need of diverse individuals at the heart of its creation?
It’s a question that we don’t claim to have any fixed answers to at Xpresso. It happens to be that our organizational make-up is quite diverse, and this is a combination of deliberate choice and happy circumstance. Our writers straddle two sides of the technical writing spectrum; all hold an ability on both sides, but some are more comfortable with technical details, whilst others understand the nature of communication, engagement and the needs of the market more intimately. It means we can always deploy the right writer for the required task. We’re also quite a female-weighted organization (though by no means exclusively female) – which can often (though not always) bring a different insight into how things can or should be done. And our content creators and account managers come from across the globe, so there’s a diversity of cultural knowledge embedded within our team.
We do think this delivers benefits for us and for the services we deliver for clients. Ultimately (and you may have heard us say this once or twice before) despite the technology being a ‘hard’ science, it really revolves around people and their needs. Companies don’t sell wires, or code, or big boxes of technical tricks – they sell solutions, value, efficiency and benefit. Communicating that means being able to talk to people effectively, and having a communications team that is relatable, experienced and culturally attuned to the way your business does things.
So we’re pretty clear that representation and diversity benefits us as an organization, since communication and representation are inherently bound together. We don’t pretend to have answers for the wider technology industry – we can see arguments for maintaining a technically skilled work force based on who is the most qualified (even if that results in slight homogenization). But we would also love to see more diversity in the industry, not necessarily because we might achieve ‘better’ (howsoever defined) results, but because nobody should be limited in their ability to enjoy the pleasure and satisfaction that can be derived from STEM-related work. The ‘TV studio of tomorrow’ talk at the Future of TV production event highlighted how beneficial it was to ‘borrow’ from expertise in other fields (namely, gaming) and transplant it – what you achieve is the kind of disruptive innovation that revolutionizes whole fields. Maybe we can use diversity in different ways to achieve similar gains?
The main thing is to keep the debate alive, and to be conscious of the human element of the technology industry at every level – not only in sales and communication, but in recruitment, training, human resources, product development, and beyond.