Practitioners and Practice

December 29, 2020

In my last post, I proposed three goals for enabling "non-practitioners" meaningful access to important technology conversations. When I posted it on Twitter, J. Khadijah Abdurahman made an interesting suggestion:

Tweet reads: This is getting at exactly what I’ve been thinking about but in a way feel the disconnect between the practitioners and non practitioners precisely is practice so to speak. Sharing w/ you a lil trailer we did that might be of interest

The tweet also references the video below, showing a trailer of a project that uses a browser extension to facilitate guided tours of the web. In the context of the tweet, my understanding is that it demonstrates an accessible way for anyone to author artifacts "made of internet." It is an example of internet-experience-creating technology that doesn't create a practitioner / non-practitioner dichotomy.

Hitchhiker from INCITE on Vimeo.

I think Abdurahman's note points at a complex and important conversation: the idea of a distinction between "practitioners" and "non-practitioners," especially as it's embodied in the choices offered to different people[1]. I have some pretty strong biases in this area:

  1. When I'm working on a system, I want maximum flexibility and control, even at the cost of some complexity. For example, I've been working on this site for a few months now, and I've spent most of that time refining my infrastructure organization and building supporting services for myself rather than using existing solutions that don't align with my design goals. Everyone should have the option of being in the driver's seat on their own site and in their online experience generally. If a practitioner / non-practitioner dichotomy is useful, we should make every effort to help people get to the side they want to be on.
  2. Software can be frustrating. In the post where I shared my path from a creative-writing background to software writing, I noted that part of that experience, for me, was emotionally challenging, because it requires continuous attention to the computer's need for everything to be explained totally unambiguously, at a level of detail I found unprecedented in my interactions with people. As a rule, I would not want to assume that a given person who wants meaningful control of their online presence necessarily wants to sign up for that. In my thinking about this, I've tended to conflate this dichotomy--between the intent to jump in with both feet and learn, vs the intent to achieve some orthogonal goal--as equivalent to the practitioner / non-practitioner dichotomy. That may not be a good equivalence to draw.
  3. I recognize an identity component to the practitioner / non-practitioner dichotomy. I consider myself a practitioner as part of my self-image[2]. There seem to be people who positively consider themselves non-practitioners--at least, that's how I interpret the phrase "I'm not a technical person," which I hear from time to time. When I hear this statement, I regard it as an intentional disclosure of lack-of-interest. Regardless of my belief that anyone can be a practitioner, this person has shown an entirely understandable preference that they don't want to be one. If this distinction in interest--between wanting to be a practitioner and not wanting to be a practitioner--is part of the definition of those two categories, that has implications for how we try to extend access. Specifically, we should try to make as many capabilities as possible available to those who self-identify as non-practitioners, rather than expecting that everyone will accept being made into a practitioner.

These are some of my biases--everyone should feel empowered to be a practitioner[3], being a practitioner carries an unavoidable, 100% risk of frustration and (usually temporary) failure, and not everyone wants to be a practitioner. These biases push me toward the conclusion that efforts to extend access should deliberately address both categories, in addition to helping people move between them.

What would this look like in practice? I imagine two parallel gradients, one between practitioners and non-practitioners, and the other between "focus on the computing nuts and bolts" and "focus on the intersections between computer systems and one's stronger interests." Neither need be a binary choice, and people can inhabit changing positions depending on context. From the perspective of program design, both practitioners and non-practitioners should learn and participate together. From a wider societal perspective, my hope would be that the perceived distinction between the categories--the impulse to say "I'm not a technical person" because of feeling intimidted--would grow smaller.

  1. I'm using "offered" in passive voice, because sometimes the offer-er is a human (when giving help or advice) and sometimes it's a system, product, or message. Any of those vectors can carry bias. ↩︎

  2. I make this distinction by intent, as in bias #2, not any level of skill or attainment. A practitioner, to me, is someone who wants the long, detailed, and contextual answer to whatever question they have. A non-practitioner is someone who wants to get an immediately-useful answer quickly and move on with their day. ↩︎

  3. and should be given access to the resources to make that happen ↩︎