Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's the difference between judges and geeks?

@HuffPostTech, with its headline "Sexting Case Befuddles Supreme Court" falls into the usual trap of mistaking precision and pedantry for ignorance and confusion, by misinterpreting the purpose of the Supreme Court question 'What's The Difference Between Email And A Pager?'

The point about legal documentation is that it needs to make sense for decades to come, if not centuries. Whenever someone in court makes a reference to some passing cultural phenomenon or fashionable device, it is the duty of the presiding judge to request a definition, to ensure that the court records are complete and self-contained. This does not imply that the judge himself is ignorant; on the contrary, it may indicate that the judge is thinking at a different level of abstraction, and anticipating the needs of future readers.

IT professionals (and geeks generally) should surely be sympathetic to this approach. After all, there are many software processes that benefit from professionals asking clarifying questions, even when they think they know the answer. And innovation often depends on people finding new answers to questions that most people thought weren't worth asking. For example, when Bill Gates asks "What is a network?", this could either be interpreted to mean that Bill Gates is stupid or alternatively that he is very clever. (Smart money goes with the second of these two possibilities.)

It is a pity that those responsible for system requirements and software documentation aren't always as diligent as Supreme Court judges. 

Related blogpost Asking Stupid Questions (Feb 2013)

See also:

Brenda Michelson, Want Better Answers? Ask Better Questions (Elemental Links, January 2016)

Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas, Relearning the Art of Asking Questions (HBR March 27, 2015) HT @cybersal

Finally, some judges really are stupid. See my blogpost What's in a name? (Dec 2014)

Updated 8 February 2016 

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