This past weekend I began learning a new language.
Can you tell how excited I am?
No, you probably can’t, because excitement is difficult to convey without audible volume, !!!!!! or LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, but rest assured, I am pretty pumped.
It isn’t an uncommon language. I should probably have looked into years ago.
It is called HTML (HyperText Markup Language). Perhaps you have heard of it? Experts beware, I am so green when it comes to writing code of any kind that my ignorance may startle you. HTML, as it turns out, is way nifty. It may even be more useful than the French I’ve been trying to acquire for past two years. I type symbols into my Chromebook, arrows and dashes and letters and commas, and voila! I’ve created a list, inserted a picture, reformatted a webpage. It is mesmerizing.
What is perhaps equally mesmerizing is that I am learning code. Me. Thrift-store shopping, bookstore-haunting, postcard-writing me. When I consider the positions I’ve held, the views I’ve touted, and the things I’ve said regarding the evils of technology and the way it is destroying our society…well, it’s just embarrassing.
Like so many other aspects of my life, technology is something I’m learning to re-imagine. And it excites me in ways I can’t really explain. Ways that make me feel like a “poser” in every sense of the word.
Early this year, I began visiting a church in SF. It is young and thriving and exciting and real, led a by a pastor who caters his teaching to the young professionals who make up the bulk of the congregation. It is a church in the city. A church whose identity is in Christ, and whose mission is not to save San Francisco, but to transform it. We are encouraged to engage. To be current. To take stock of what is happening around us and read into the needs of the community. A few months back, we were learning about wisdom and encouraged to read an article on the changing culture of SF.
I copied the link. Saved it on my phone. And in small bits at a time–stuck in traffic on the Freeway, in line at Safeway, waiting for a meeting–I digested the information. Something is happening, I thought. Something that matters. Something to which I need to start paying attention. Spend too much time reading local magazines and you start to believe that everything that happens in the Bay Area matters, but when it comes to technology, a lot of it really does.
A few months ago, I got a hankering to write something current, something relevant. I started drafting a profile piece about an engineer I met a few years ago, thinking that his might be a story worth telling. I ran it past one of my colleagues, who passed along a NY Times article discussing the problems that come with the influx of young people in Silicon Valley. I didn’t read it right away. Didn’t think I would understand. But when the same story came up in a conversation two weeks later, I thought maybe I ought to pay attention.
The tech community intimidates me. It feels so big and important and daunting. The more I seek to understand it, the more I want to, but I find myself swimming in it, thrashing in a pool of acronyms and innovations, wanting to get a feel for what’s going on and left treading the water of platforms and applications. I need a leader or a guide, someone who can teach me how to cut through the waves of data with strong, even strokes. There is just so much I don’t know.
“Use your words, writer,” my friend Andrew teases when I can’t express my thoughts. But the truth is, I don’t always have them. Especially when it comes to technology. I don’t have the language to articulate my questions, much less to engage in discussions.
It is not unlike the spring I spent living in France. I knew enough of the language to get by, but it was new. At least to me.
The French language itself is old and painstakingly preserved by L’Académie française, but my interest of it was new. I wanted to learn French. Wanted to understand it and use it and figure out how to communicate and respond with it. But for weeks, perhaps months, all I could really do was listen, hoping that every once in a while I would remember what the phonemes meant, would grasp what was happening with all those beautiful sounds and syllables. While I was living in France I was inundated with French–on the radio, in the parks, on the street signs and advertisements, so easily flowing from the mouths of people all around me. And yet I remained nearly mute, terrified of making a mistake, of showing that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I sometimes felt it would be easier to give up and admit that I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t access that world.
And that is not too different from how I feel now. In many ways, tech speak is more foreign than French, and Silicon Valley (as a concept) more isolating than the French countryside. It would be easy to give up. Easy to retreat to a world of literary journals and poetry critiques. But when it comes to technology, I have an urgency to learn that I have rarely felt, a need to participate in conversations and make my own assessments. Because all of this (like it or not) is changing the world we live in. I get all goosebumpy and chilled when I think about it. And maybe that’s because I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Or maybe it’s because I do.
Possibly, it is because I sense that somehow all of the pieces are going to come together and I want to be able to realize when they do. It is foolish to dismiss what you don’t understand simply because you do not understand it. It is wrong to let pride get in the way of learning. And maybe that is really the lesson in all of this, not the necessity of learning code, but humility. Perhaps the greatest thing that comes from entering a world you do not understand is coming to appreciate the people who live there. When you do your own world gets that much bigger. And if you’re nice to the natives, if you’re willing to admit your own ignorance and helplessness, you may just find that they’re willing to share, to serve as the translator who can help you to speak.