Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. Machine-breaking was criminalized by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as early as 1721, the penalty being penal transportation, but as a result of continued opposition to mechanisation the Frame-Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available: see "Criminal damage in English law".

Who are the non-technicals?

Since I started working in the software industry, I often hear phrasing like this:

– “I’m non-technical, so this solution doesn’t seem for me.”

– “We need to communicate to the non-technical people too.”

My “non-technical” liberal arts education would have set me up to interpret these statements to be about Luddites: protesters who denounce technology, worried that we will become slaves to the machines.

However, it’s rarely people who are prone to break your laptop in protest that’s subject to the category of “non-technical.” More often than not, it’s people that have the same expensive phone and laptop that you have. People who use e-mail, word processors, apps for all sorts of things, spreadsheets, robot vacuums, cars, and whatever back office system they have to endure at their work place.

Yeah, you probably see where I’m going with this. I don’t think the term “non-technical” is particularly helpful: Not as a self-description, not as a persona, and not as something we use to characterize other people.

In fact, to label people as “non-technical” is probably reinforcing stereotypes and implicit ideas of power. On the flip side of this label, we are giving a particular agency to the people who make software with code while stealing it away from those who don’t.

I often observe this self-description used about in a slightly self-deprecating manner: “Yeah, I don’t understand this; I’m non-technical.” If you say this about yourself, why should you be expected to have opinions and critical questions about whatever “technical” go on? In most cases, the other party hasn‘t employed enough care or empathy to jump out of their specialized lingo to communicate what‘s at stake.

And when we use “non-technical” to decide on our communication strategy, does it help us? I suspect that it most often means that you need to communicate less about the particular features and implementation details of whatever you’re selling and more about the problems that are representative of a wider group of people to whom you’re trying to sell. In probably all cases, you could say “value-based” or “customer-centered.”

Not understanding much from an article about the particularities of TypeScript’s interface for polymorphic arrays doesn’t make you more “non-technical” than not having read a tome by Tolstoj makes you illiterate. And not (yet) knowing how to program doesn’t make you less technical, as not having crawled over the English channel doesn‘t make you less of a swimmer.

I’m fairly confident I could get you started with programming in less than a day if you don’t know it already. Because you’re already “technical.” You are so technical that you already know many operational metaphors and models that go into coding. There is nothing in programming you that’s beyond you if you can read this blog post. Sure, it takes time to learn patterns, particularities, and the ins and out of debugging. Sure, some people are more and less motivated by it.

There is an important difference between assuming that you are intrinsically not able to use or understand tech and being inexperienced with certain technologies.

So I hope you think twice about what you mean the next time you reach for “non-technical” to denote someone or yourself. Who are you giving power to in the situation?

Moar posts!