Around the end of 2009, I quit tech. I don't mean I quit using, or even deriving my income from my use of computers. I mean I stopped viewing tech as a legitimate domain of expertise and industry.

The idea that tech equals computers is an assumption deserving of its own examination. Technologies newer than computers get an affix: cleantech, biotech, nanotech. What's so special about computers that tech gets to go naked?

(And please, not IT. IT has come to mean the guys who fix your email. Digital is equivalently meaningless. Language written on animal skins is just as digital.)

Tech is not an industry, but rather an aspect of every industry. An industrial domain communicates a clear social function: Mining. Agriculture. Construction. Medicine. Transportation. Tech, in contrast, communicates little beyond the generation of raw capability, much like business communicates little beyond the generation of raw profit. My worry here is that such a view makes for an insular, and potentially dangerous detachment from an individual's—and by extension, an organization's role in society. Neither tech, nor business for that matter, say or indeed care very much about material results outside their own narrow confines.

The First Being The Invisible Hand

Consider what is probably the second most abused pull-quote from The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

I am willing to bet that there exist few butchers, brewers or bakers who are completely ignorant about the effect of their activity on society. Their social roles are old enough that the value and ethics surrounding them are well-understood. And don't get me wrong: I'm a big proponent of self-interest as an engine of individual motivation, but it doesn't especially matter why they do what they do. The question I'm interested in is how can I tell what I'm doing is a net benefit to society? Put another way: am I shitting where I eat? Is there a mechanism for the rest of the world to give me clear feedback on this particular question? The signal put out by the market is ambiguous: the relationship between an income statement and the social value of the activity that generated it was tenuous even in the 18th century, when the passage was written. Today, the social impact of most peoples' everyday efforts is abstracted far, far away.

Software code, much like large corporate entities, makes it possible for small numbers of people to make their will—and their mistakes—felt all around the world. With this expressive power, the relative potential for damage, otherwise known as negative externalities, is enormous. Just as business can pursue profit without a nod to how that profit is achieved, by identifying what I do with the denuded label of tech I'm stripping the pursuit of capability from its context, from its meaning. So the meaning, the purpose, becomes the otherwise aimless acquisition of capability itself.

Information > Technology

Information services is a perfectly legitimate domain of industry and expertise. The social role these services play is to furnish people with the means to make decisions that will benefit them. How these services are meted out, that is, the technology, is irrelevant. Moreover, as a domain, information services is still intolerably abstract, and each instance of it still demands individual scrutiny: Who is it helping? Who is it hurting? Does it rob some people to give to others? Are we okay with that?

To complicate matters, much of what we call tech is not strictly an information service, and as such we can't judge it on its ability to generate materially beneficial decisions in people, leave aside the aforementioned ethical questions. A lot of it is entertainment, so we would have to look at the content of that entertainment. A massive, near-completely invisible amount of it is dedicated to controlling machines, so we would have to examine what each and every machine affected does for its distinct social value, and so on. Bundling this activity up under the umbrella of tech just further frustrates our ability as citizens to judge whether or not we want it to exist in the world.

And Yet…

Acquiring and systematizing capability is a large part of what I do. It also happens that much—but nowhere close to all—of this capability manifests as software code. When I acquire capability, however, it is completely in the service of the social role I'm actually providing, which, currently, is to help existing organizations of my choosing run their operations more intelligently. This is, in effect, an information service. But it's also something else, something that doesn't really have a name yet.

A lot of the work I've been doing over the last few years revolves around creating conceptual structures to help people organize and communicate thought and action. I do this by specifying meaningful terms and the relationships between them, and arrange them in a topological space. I'd be inclined to call this information architecture if the phrase wasn't pigeonholed to mean the design of website navigation. It doesn't help my effort to differentiate much that the current most effective vehicle to make use of these structures is a website. If computers and the Web didn't exist, however, the most appropriate mechanism would probably be McBee cards.

Or maybe not: there's a strong argument to be made that the incumbent technology makes this kind of work practical, and even helps show that it's desirable. But the work itself is not tech. It's language, semantics, epistemology, logic, discrete mathematics—bodies of knowledge that have existed before, and would exist whether computers existed or not—though which have undoubtedly, in a McLuhan-esque way, been affected by computers, even if that change is merely making them orders of magnitude cheaper to do.

An Opportunity to Become Wisdom Workers

In a keynote lecture some years ago, the researcher Linda Stone introduced a conceptual structure—not terribly unlike the ones I find myself making—created by Dee Hock, the founder of VISA:

She then followed with an enticement:

Simply put, we have gone from being information workers to knowledge workers, and now we have an opportunity to become wisdom workers.

That. That's what I'm doing. And one thing that isn't, is tech.