In praise (and search) of humility

Recently I’ve been thinking about Twitter, policymaking and context collapse. I started tweeting ~seriously~ at uni, when I was trying to understand tech policy issues and connect with people thinking about them. Then I went to work on tech policy, which is (basically) about structuring problems, figuring out solutions, and trying to persuade people of them. I went from being an intrigued onlooker to an active participant.

There are (at least) 2 challenges when participating: how to demonstrate credibility without drowning any political message in a sea of technicality, and how to ‘cut through’ in an already busy sphere.

In tech and/or policy Twitter, there are a lot of very clever and very self-assured people. Some cut through on the strength of their logic. Some cut through on the strength of their message. Some have both. Both can be quite intimidating. Both suggest you should be adopting a particular tone on the internet.

Now, I don’t think there’s much value in non-profits/think-tanks not being clear about their positions. But a good chunk of this work involves understanding issues we’re not immediately expert in – often by speaking to those who are – to package that into something accessible that shapes debate or is useful for political audiences.

The risk, and I think I’ve fallen foul of this at times, is that you lean too hard into the rhetoric, but in the end lose credibility and trust. Yes, endless nuance can be even less useful and sometimes actually inhibit progress. But in a low-context cultural environment like Twitter, tone arguably matters even more. Especially if you’re young, and don’t have much of your own delivery record to provide that context / authority.

I’m 24. I frequently try my best to participate constructively in debates with experts and those with far more experience. Sometimes that requires projecting some confidence. Most of the time I’m just trying to learn. But there’s also a non-trivial chance you can undermine those relationships if your tone strays too far from humility. I’m still trying to find the balance.

My friends Lucy Black-Swan and Andres Colmenares write, in ‘The Everything Manifesto’, about the importance of designing for humility: to advocate for causes without presupposing answers or closing down the solution space. There’s a lot to be gained from that in policy, where no one person has all the answers.

I’ll be trying to take that lesson forward. We should never shy away from what we believe, nor being punchy when that’s necessary to push debate forward. But humility should be at the core. Call it “strong opinions, weakly held”, or whatever you like. It matters as an approach and, in an internet context, that others’ know that’s your approach. (Hence this post.)

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