How Would You Explain the iPad to Benjamin Franklin?

Benjamin Franklin was indisputably one of the greatest minds of the 18th Century.  Scientist, inventor, journalist, publisher, author, lecturer, diplomat, and mentor to great men.  He wasn’t just the sharpest tool in the shed, he was the whetstone who kept a lot of the other tools sharp.  So, if we were somehow able to transport him to the present day, how would you explain the iPad to him?

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

If you were to demonstrate an iPad to an intellectually undistinguished member of the football team of your local high school, he’d be able to use it in a matter of a few minutes.  He’d have no trouble understanding how to use the various gestures to navigate, select applications, and so on.  He’d be able to check his Email, download music, and so on.  And he’d learn quickly, because he won’t care about the technology – he’ll only care about doing things.  He’s grown up around digital music, instantaneous communications, battery powered devices, displays, and search engines, so he has the context to use it in the way the designers intended.  He’s easy to train, and he’ll learn independently.  But there’s a limit to what he’ll actually accomplish, because he’s not interested in how.

But our newly resuscitated scientist is an altogether different case.  He’s famed for his experiments with electricity, but has never seen even a simple device powered by a battery.  His writings are quoted even today, but the concept of keyboards and typing came along nearly a century after he died.  In his day, communication was something one did in person, or in a letter.  Music was performed for small audiences in the same room, until late in the 19th century, when someone figured out to record it, and the 20th century, when someone figured out how to broadcast it.  Mr. Franklin won’t understand anything of what you’re trying to show him, because he simply doesn’t have the life experiences needed to provide context.  But he’s a man of boundless curiosity, so he’ll interrupt your every sentence with a question about how.

Mr. Franklin is going to get frustrated, and so are you.  There’s just too much of an experience gap to bridge, and maybe you need to start him off with something simpler, like a flashlight.  You understand how a flashlight works, even if you don’t know anything about battery technology – just be sure you don’t show him a light with an LED bulb..  Then you show him a microwave oven, but the man who invented the Franklin Stove doesn’t understand how to heat food with gigahertz-band radio waves, because he doesn’t know what they are.  But he’s truly interested in knowing how it works, even if he’s not particularly interesting in nuking a frozen burrito for lunch.  He’s not stupid, by any definition of intelligence, but he’s definitely not ready for this explanation.  And maybe you don’t know enough about cavity magnetrons to answer his questions.

If your project plan includes training, be sure you conduct an analysis of the backgrounds of those who will require training, and ensure that the materials, delivery method, and training approach matches their experience level.  Consider providing background instruction, or even remedial training to a subset of the group, if it will help them get up to speed with the rest of the learners.  Because it’s not about how smart they are; it’s about whether they can put the information in context, acquire the needed skills and understanding, and make use of it.  You probably won’t see the distinguished (and long-deceased) former Ambassador to France in the class, but there’s no point in setting up a smart person for frustration.  Or the presenter, for that matter.  Or the rest of the class.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. He also holds the project management professional (PMP) designation, as well as professional designations in human resources (GPHR and SPHR) and in benefits administration (CEBS). In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.

3 thoughts on “How Would You Explain the iPad to Benjamin Franklin?

  1. I certainly agree with the premise of the post. Keeping the background and experiences of your team in mind are absolutely critical.

    I’m not sure the iPad was the greatest example. When I handed my two-year old an iPhone for the very first time, he was navigating and using it in a matter of moments. 🙂

  2. No doubt. But like I said, it’s a whole lot easier to explain to someone who wants to “do” things. Even a two year old has probably talked on the phone. The challenge is spinning up those who have little or no context for “what to do.” Try showing him how to check his Email and update his calendar.

    Thanks for stopping by, and give our regards to Hogarth!

  3. Good story!
    If I started bringing Ben up to speed on the internets, I would start with the explanation of “it’s a series of tubes”.
    Next, knowing Ben liked the ladies, I would show him all the pretty girls on this “rapid publication device”. I don’t know if this approach would work but I think it would be easier than explaining to Galileo why you prefer an aisle seat.

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