Magical Thinking and the End of Publishing

This post by John Pettigrew originally appeared on Publishing Matters on 2/23/15.

‘Magical thinking’ is allowing our own ignorance of a topic to give us the impression that there’s something special, ‘magical’ about the people who do understand it. It’s a common failing but it’s having an unfortunate effect on the publishing industry’s approach to ‘digital technology’. And some critical shortsighted mistakes are being made as a result.

There are surely fewer more ridiculous terms used in publishing than ‘digital natives’ – apparently, people in their teens and twenties who have grown up with technology and so ‘get it’ in ways that older people don’t. The assumption that all people in their 40s, 50s or older somehow don’t ‘get’ technology (especially odd given that this is the generation that invented most of it!) is just wrong. After all, the fact that I grew up with cars and learned to drive one as soon as I could doesn’t mean that I could make one, or even begin to fix anything but the simplest issues when it breaks down!

Why, then, do we talk as though ‘young people’ somehow have a magical grasp of technology that older people don’t?


Magical thinking

We see magical thinking all over the place, but perhaps especially with subjects that are perceived as difficult – finance, science, technology. Because it looks difficult to us (who don’t understand it), we overestimate the difficulty of the subject.

This can have two opposite unfortunate effects. The first is when we undervalue or even devalue the subject area – because we don’t understand it, it must not be very important, and those people who do think about it are somehow lacking in finer feelings or social niceties or whatever. This approach is often associated with perceptions of Maths, Science and Engineering. We hear, “Oh, well, I don’t understand Maths” used almost as a badge of pride – in a way we’d never hear, “Oh, well, I don’t really understand literature.”


Read the full post on Publishing Matters.


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