Doing Well by Doing Good

In the late 1930’s, two significant political figures discovered new technology.

At the time, the new technology was called Radio. And both of these political figures discovered, pretty much in parallel, its power and influence.

One of these figures was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
The other was New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Continue reading “Doing Well by Doing Good”

My sister didn’t go to the STC Technical Communication Summit. I did. Here’s how it happened.

It’s been a long time since I posted here. Despite the conventional wisdom about blogging, I only post when I really have something to say.  I’ve been needing to think about this one for a while, and my thoughts are still developing – hence the long hiatus. 

I had a great time at the STC Technical Communications Summit. I’d better have, it cost me nearly 5000 € to attend it, between air fares, hotel, meals, registration, extras etc. There was lots of good energy and good vibes at the society level, but I’m not going to talk about that here, that’s for other forums.

What I want to do is reflect on the summit (and, indirectly, its value proposition) from the point of view of a simple attendee, which, after the first Leadership Day, I was. I was not presenting in any of the non-leadership sessions, so I just attended the sessions that attracted my interest, based on their catalog descriptions.

I’d have to say, as an overall evaluation, that I was neither disappointed, nor overly excited by anything I saw or heard. Unlike last year’s dynamic conference in Dallas, the sessions this year all seemed good, workman-like presentations, well-oiled, well-rehearsed, useful, but uninspiring. At least for me.

What I was looking for and didn’t find was the bubbling excitement of what I think of as the new, interdisciplinary nature of our profession. Last year, in the wake of the European STC groups’ successful Content Strategy Forum ’10, there was an effervescence around the Content Strategy and Usability sessions. This year, both were present, but muted. This year, everyone seemed to be getting “back to basics,” and basics seems to mean docs of one sort or the other.

My sister, an STC member, does very similar work to what I do, but in a different context. I do it for software development, she does it for a web full of scientific content, aimed at a general audience. We were looking for an excuse to get together in sunny California, and the Summit seemed like a good bet, but in the end, she didn’t make it.

Why?  “I don’t write docs,” she said, “there’s not much there for me.”

“Oh, there’s lot’s of content strategy and other stuff you’ll be interested in,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

And indeed, it was hard to find. In fact, the sessions that didn’t deal directly with some sort of subject specifically oriented towards user guidance were few and far between. With all the emphasis on clouds, web content, crowd sourcing, and the rest, this summit seemed to be very firmly anchored in a closed little world of manuals and their extensions.

I firmly believe that the future of technical communication is much more expansive than user guidance (though this will remain important). People who do web content, people who fill information-rich software with content, people who bridge the worlds of science and technology, people who engage the social, political and cultural implications of technology, all need the same kinds of tools, the same kinds of epistemological constructs, the same approaches to designing content and maintaining its life cycle intelligently.

An international technical communications meeting that ignores this, risks losing its relevance, no matter how upbeat, positive, and energetic it seems at the moment of its unfolding.

This year’s STC summit was a good tech docs meeting, and as such it was valuable and interesting. However, as an indicator of where our profession is going / needs to go, it could have done better. As an umbrella for the broad spectrum of practitioners of technical communication, it failed altogether – and seemed very parochial, at least to this participant. Since I am both active in STC leadership and concerned for the society’s future, I attended practically by reflex. If I were not involved (and partially funded by my chapter – thanks), I’m not sure I would have found it worth spending 5000 € just to network with people and attend some decent sessions. For that cost, I’d want the fire, the glory, the inspiration.

It’s been said that this is the best time ever to be a technical communicator, and I agree. I would like to see us break out of our own self-imposed ghettos, and provide that forward-looking, multidisciplinary, global umbrella that will lead us forward into this very exciting century.

A Beautiful Example of Transformation

Friends, check out this video:

It’s a great example of what Edward Tufte has been writing about for decades, and a marvelous demonstration of the power of simplicity to tell an important story.

Check out the site that posted this, Information is beautiful, to see more of the same kind of transformation thinking.

I have written elsewhere about the need for a transformation society (not an information society), where the accumulation of information becomes less important, information gets de-commodified, and is transformed into knowledge, know-how and understanding.

This seems a daunting task, and yet these people have done a part of it so simply, clearly, and (seemingly) effortlessly.

The video embedded above (and you can find a version for the U.K. in pounds sterling, too) shows clearly how we have developed an economy of debt, where we prefer to overspend and play financial games, than to put a relatively small amount of money into really solving some of the world’s problems.

Our information accumulation society has had something to do with this phenomenon, so it is wonderful to see the same technology applied to demonstrate clearly that this is a road we do not want to continue following.

Next step:  Let’s find ways to demonstrate how we can use the technology to implement these solutions.

More About Communities of Interest

In my last post about WikiLeaks, I used the term, “community of interest.”  What’s this all about?

Let’s start with a very simple analogy:  Primitive humans, in prehistoric times.  These folks quickly formed communities of interest, based on the paleontological record.  Why?

  • Not because they look alike
  • Not because they have a family relationship
  • Not because a psychologist told them they ought to do it
  • Not based on advice from the most recent self-help book…

They formed communities because they were hungry, and catching a mammoth requires a group effort!

What this means, in reality, is that our notion of “community” as a cooperative group working in some sort of altruistic harmony towards a common goal or common welfare, is not a complete definition.

Communities can form for very short-term reasons, and for very selfish ones.  Communities of interest on the internet form and dissolve all the time, and can often have shifting composition and purposes. This mobility of community is an interesting phenomenon. As the youngest generations, those who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and the like, mature into adulthood, it will be interesting to see how the “moral” idea of community gets changed.

Are we headed towards a world where “community” is defined purely by self-interest?  Will the variety of human motivation survive the era of instant gratification?

The community of interest organized around WikiLeaks is infuriated at what seems to be a conspiracy to close the site.  This could be purely altruistic in nature, or could be motivated by a generalised anti-authoritarianism fueled by anger and frustration in the wake of events such as the recent financial crisis.

Whatever the motivation, the tools of contemporary communication technologies are playing a role not only in accompanying social change, but in driving it.

The Real Significance of WikiLeaks

The shock value of the WikiLeaks revelations have been dissected and analyzed to death. There would seem to be consensus that we didn’t learn much we didn’t already know from the recent flood of documents exposed by the site. There seems to be less consensus about whether these leaks represent a new transparency or a danger to international diplomacy.

None of these, it seems to me, represents the real significance of WikiLeaks. The real story comes from the spontaneous eruption of support for Julian Assange on the internet. I don’t just mean the spontaneous rallying of public opinion via the net. I mean the guerilla actions of hackers who attacked, en masse, Visa and Mastercard computers when they closed down payment services for WikiLeaks.

We seem to be headed for a world in which the existing power structures – governments, multinational corporations, economic alliances, etc. – are having to face, more and more, parallel structures – call them communities of interest, if you like – that run detours around the usual circuits, and circumvent the usual “avenues of power.”

It’s clear that this is just the beginning.  How far will it go, and is it a good thing?

First Rant

I am a technical communicator.

“So what is it, exactly, that you do?”  I hear this a lot from people, even people that know me for many years.

It used to be easier to explain:  “You know, those manuals that come with products, or software, you know, the ones nobody ever reads?  Well, I write them.”

Except, I don’t anymore.  My profession has become something transcendental, mysterious if not actually mystical.  It is a great way to learn all kinds of new skills, and to mix three things that are my passion:  Communication, Culture and Technology.

It is a great profession, and a great time to be in this profession.  And that’s what this blog is about.