Don’t like reading terms and conditions? It’s not just you

During my lunch break, I came across this article in the New York Times. It talks about privacy policies for a number of companies — and the vast majority of them are nearly incomprehensible. According to the metrics in the article, comprehending privacy policies requires a minimum of a college degree — and even then, they may not be understandable. As mentioned in the article, the policies were not written to inform the public (read: you) as much as to protect the company. It brought to mind a research article that I read in grad school. It had to do with legal documents, the language of legalese, and how it was nearly incomprehensible. I don’t remember the specifics of it (grad school was a long time ago), but the gist of it was that these documents were purposely written that way in order that any ambiguous language was eliminated and things were made clear. And when I say “clear,” I mean that definitions were defined and unequivocal. Readable, however, is another story.

I could get into data security and how privacy policies exist for your protection, but that’s not why I’m writing this article. (I’ll leave it to people like Steve Jones to address that aspect.) Rather, I’m writing this because I’m a technical writer (among other things), and document readability is a big deal to me. Indeed, this is a major point of emphasis in both of my presentations about talking to non-techies and documentation, and is one of my biggest document pet peeves.

Readability is a huge deal in documentation. Legalese may be a big deal for making sure definitions are unambiguous, but it is inappropriate for something like, say, step-by-step instructions. When I’m writing instructions, I follow a rule of thumb where if an instruction takes longer than a few seconds for the reader to understand, the instruction has failed. I continue to be appalled by technologists who insist on writing every little bit of detail in their instructions and end up with a “step by step” that is one big black body of text. And I’m continually annoyed when that person says, “it’s right there in the documentation,” but the information you seek is buried somewhere in the middle of the 100+ lines of text that (s)he wrote that takes about an hour to read.

When I talk about documentation and instructing people, one tenet that I actively push is the KISS principle. But even this is not easy to do, and people take that for granted. Indeed, this is what technical writers, UX/UI developers, and instructors do; they are in the business of taking incomprehensible technical language and translating it for people to understand.

Do privacy policies really need to be that incomprehensible? I don’t have an answer to that right now; that might be another article for another time. But what I do know is, if their intent is to inform people, especially the general public, they fail miserably.

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Election day

“Can I tell you something; got to tell you one thing if you expect the freedom that you say is yours; prove that you deserve it; help us to preserve it, or being free will just be words and nothing more…”
— Kansas, “Can I Tell You”

I don’t think I can say it any better than the song lyric I quoted above.

Last night, I overheard a coworker say, “I don’t vote.  It doesn’t make any difference.”  And he continued to spew about his views on the world.

I kept silent, but I am not ashamed to say that I wanted to tear him a new a**hole.

People died so I can vote.  That is something I do not take lightly.  For someone to brush it off and disrespect that right like that absolutely incenses me.  I vote every year.  I make sure I vote every year.  And so should you.

The fact is, your vote does matter.  In 2016, the vast majority of the country did not vote — because “it wouldn’t make a difference.”  Had at least half of these people gone to the polls, chances are that the current state of the union would be much different.

Yes, our system is far from perfect.  Yes, our system has flaws.  But the fact is, your vote matters.

Want to change the system?  Vote.

Unite the world

“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all; together we stand; divided, we fall…”
— Pink Floyd, Hey You

“An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.”
— Gandhi

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
— John Lennon, Imagine

“I have a dream…”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just for this one article, I am breaking my silence on all things political.

As is much of the country, I am outraged with what has happening at America’s southern border.  I have my opinions regarding the current administration, and what is happening to our country and around the world.

However, that is not the point of this article.  I am not going to write about my politics, my opinions, or my outrage.  Today, I want to write about something else.

It occurred to me this morning that, more than ever, we are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.