Sunday, February 13, 2011

Public and Private, or What did happen to boom boxes?

Given that I spend so much time in front of groups of people as an instructor or presenter (and that I talk a lot), many people are surprised to discover that I consider myself an introvert (and my Myers-Briggs personality profile backs me up on this). Part of this is probably genetically determined: a result of being an Asperger's kid and both lacking in social skills and interest in same. But, whatever the reason, when I'm home, I'm quite happy to never leave the house.

I've been taking another run at Hannah Arendt's "The Human Condition" and one of the points she wants to make is the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere and how those two have intermixed over the centuries (basically from the city states of ancient Greece to the Western nations in the fifties).

One of the reasons that I've been thinking of this is that Sunday Morning (the CBS television show) had a segment today about boom boxes and how they are, now, a item of nostalgia. They've been replaced, first by the Walkman, then by the personal CD player, and now by MP3 players. It occurred to me that boom boxes were, essentially, a public activity. The point of the boxes was to make it possible for your music to be heard by yourself and others. MP3 players, on the other hand, are essentially private: while you can get speakers for them, most of listen on headsets. But the boom boxes could also have headphones, there was no reason why they had to come with speakers. So, in my own life, I've seen something move from being a necessarily public activity (portable-music-with-speakers) to private (portable-music-with-headphones).

One of the cases Ms. Arendt wants to make is that the Greeks felt that excellence could only be achieved in the public sphere: Glorious deeds done of one's own free will in the sight of others. Certainly, the idea of excellence could not be applied either to what one did to earn your pay (work) or what you did to stay alive (labour). We have a broader view of where one can achieve excellence.

It occurred to me that this probably has a lot to do with why technical writing is so important to me. First, it is an essentially public activity: your writing is useless without others reading it. It's also a contribution to the life of others--the purpose of technical writing is to help others do something or make a decision in a way that those others wouldn't have been able to do without the technical document.

But, even in a team environment, writing is essentially a private activity. When you are actually writing (unless the tenets of Extreme Programming reach into the field) you are working by yourself. So I get my privacy, get to make a contribution to others, and do so in a public way.

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