There’s a particular type of visual puzzle where you first look intensely at one image, and then get to see a near-exact copy of it but with one item removed. It’s always really hard to spot the difference, but once you do, you think it’s obvious.

I’ve been working at a technical university for many years now, and it’s only recently that I’ve noticed what isn’t there. The previous places where I’ve worked have all been permeated by the general discourse of the surrounding society. If a certain debate stirred in the media, if a star was born on some stage, or if the country was getting ready to join a military alliance, you could always be certain that some aspect of what happened in the outside world would find its way into the lunchroom.

By comparison, my current place of employment tends to have a strong focus on technical discussions, sometimes to the exclusion of other topics. Going to work can feel a little bit like entering one giant noise cancelling machine. It’s not that we don’t talk to each other; we do. It’s just that we tend to mostly talk shop.

If you’re not familiar with that term, here’s a definition:

Talk shop” is an idiom that means to discuss work-related topics, especially in a detailed or technical manner, typically in a social setting. It often implies that the conversation might not be interesting or relevant to those not involved in the same line of work. For example, if two doctors are talking shop at a party, they might be discussing medical cases or treatments, which could be boring or incomprehensible to non-medical people present.

Now, I love to talk shop. But while this type of deep technical focus fosters incredible innovation and expertise, it sometimes also means we miss out on broader societal conversations that could enrich our work.

One thing that made me see this tendency ever more clearly—or rather hear it—was listening to a recent interview with Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.

The conversation, which lasted more than two hours, was interspersed with so many long silent pauses that I nearly had to get off my bike to check if the thing was still playing. Those silent bits were the soundtrack of Sam Altman thinking. If you edited them together, they would add up to many minutes of complete silence.

Here’s the thing: the questions that gave him pause weren’t the technical ones. They were the ones that touched on how with OpenAI’s endeavour impacted people’s lives—how ChatGPT and its ilk will inevitably influence politics and change the social fabric of civilization.

I found it hopeful that the CEO of one of the world’s highest-profile tech companies seemed to have such a broad perspective on what he brings into the world. Perhaps the rest of us can take a page from Sam and try to get better at thinking outside of the proverbial box. (Aspire for technolectualism rather than technocracy, to reference previous posts).

One of this country’s oldest and most prestigious universities has its motto printed in gold over its imposing entrance. It says, “To think freely is great, but to think correctly is greater.”

I want to suggest the following paraphrase: Talking shop is fine, but integrating the wider world into your shop-talk is even better.