Interpretation: The Most Transferable Skill

One time I was traveling for business, and I decided to list the separate data streams that the company that I currently work for could use for our operations and strategy. Final count was about fifteen, everything from what the servers show to third-party data sets about the universities and colleges that we serve, to information gained by communicating with clients. Great! But the challenge since then has been to turn that list into something useful.

Pull back the focus on that situation and you can describe almost any professional environment. The world is constantly telling us things, and modern data systems (digital or otherwise, but especially digital) are increasing the scale and velocity at which we might be told. It’s with that in mind that I’ll argue that effective interpretation of what’s given (you could call it data) is the most transferable skill. It’s also the one most likely to give you a foundation to move into something new.

In the first case, I’d say that the digital doesn’t even necessarily enter into it. The human mode of being is caught up with the world as an environment of problems in need of solutions. I mean this very expansively: “the coffee cup is over there while I am over here” for me counts as much as quantum electrodynamics or global warming as a problem. We never look so closely at something as we do at the moment that it resists us. Interpretation is a name for everything that follows as we try to put it back in its place despite that resistance, whether it’s what Douglas Harper has called the “intellectual and practical maze of mechanical repair” or the most abstract virtual challenge.

In my last post, there was a riff about seeing your website as a space probe, constantly sending back data that needs interpretation. “This is why so many people have turned themselves into digital marketing savants and social media experts over the last decade: it’s nothing but data in need of interpretation. And interpretive needs always always enable the rise of a class of interpreters.” My writing partner Craig Wiggins pointed out that this more or less rehabilitates an often-despised class of professionals, those savants and experts. They’re trying to figure it out, hopefully in not too grandiose or sweeping ways. The right response is to take them as another source of input.

Of course, that’s just one piece of the much larger landscape of digital data - you’d be hard-pressed to find an outlet for forecasting what’s coming in education, business, technology that hasn’t been pushing the idea that the ability to draw insight from the wash of digital data that’s been enabled by the web, broadband, and all kinds of digital devices.

This is specific form of interpretive skill is not likely to fade away, so it presents an opportunity. Just as digitization proved to be a universal solvent for media like music, books, and games, decomposing them into strings of zeroes and ones, I think it has also had a similar effect on the world of work. There is a digital substrate to everything done now (at least potentially so). And because every major technological advance has seen a subsequent need for interpreters -- both those who have to figure out what’s going on at or near the thing itself, and those who have to figure out how to explain all of that to people at a distance from it -- I think interpretative ability becomes the complement to the digitization of the world. It’s not merely quantitative.

At smaller and smaller intervals, we’re being hit with the need for cogent perspective. And insofar as humans are the only ones who have the capacity to say something intelligent, we ought to make sure we do!