Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Putting people in boxes

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 10:  California Atto...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I know I'll be dating myself, but back in the day I used to be very sensitive to someone wanting to label someone as a techie. I considered it then, and still consider it to be a derogatory term. It was an attempt to define you by a single dimension, and to limit your input to a particular element of the discourse. It was mostly used by people who wanted to tell you what to do, and who rarely wanted your input on why, what they were wanting to do, was unlikely to work. So whenever I heard the word it caught my attention as the idea that followed was often quite clueless.

I've worked pretty actively with technology since 1978. Back in those days you became a techie mostly through self-learning. I guess there were computer clubs to be found, but certainly not in the area of California where I lived. So what I learned, I learned almost entirely on my own. I had a diverse background. I had expertise in several areas, but technology was not really one of them. Granted, I knew a lot more about it than most people, but in reality I was (and still am) a neophyte. So I was most definitely not a techie, and I found people's attempts to define me as such insulting. (And I still do.)

So it was with great interest yesterday when an email crossed my screen describing a soon-to-be very important and influential person as a technocrat. My radar went up immediately. First, as I read the person's bio I didn't see any technology in their background at all. This was, by anyone's estimation an extremely accomplished person. It was a bio that quite seriously would blow you away, and yet the person was still quite young. So to describe this person as a technocrat to me seemed quite odd. It's one step worse than describing them as a techie.

To me, it spoke volumes about the author while telling me little about the subject. It was not used as a term-of-endearment. It was a very public display of a lack of respect. (Did someone forget to mention to the author that emails are public today?) What makes this particular example more interesting is that the subject is soon to be in a position of tremendous influence.

We're going to see many more of these clashes of culture as the next generation ascends to leadership. Starting-off by name calling doesn't bode well. I feel for those who think it's appropriate to begin a relationship by using derogatory terms to describe their new colleague. Having to start by mending fences is never good.

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