On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger

Content as a driver of change – Then & Now

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Humans have always written things down.

Those of you reading this post, with your laptops, and mobile phones, and iPads, and vanity email accounts, and your single sourced, content-reuse, DITA-compatible Docbook XML toolchains, with all your fancy Javascript elements and mind-boggling CSS overlays. You are just the latest in a long line of human beings who have been doing the same thing for millennia. Albeit with different tools.

Panel_of_simple_figures_with_boomerangs_-_Google_Art_Project

The original owners of the land we are standing on today are the Wurundjeri people. Australian indigenous art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. These weren’t just the pre-history version of hanging a Monet print on your loungeroom wall. Indigenous art exists on all manner of things: paintings on leaves, wood and rock carvings, sculptures, and of course cave drawings. This art gave early Australians a way to record the things that mattered most to them in their lives: they often involve scenes of hunts or special ceremonies. In the case of Australian art, many include megafauna and other extinct species, and even the arrival of European ships. More than a record of events, though, they were probably also a method of teaching. Each indigenous tribe had its own mythology (collectively known in English as ‘the Dreaming’), which used stories to convey morals or other educational information. Most children who grew up in Australia would be familiar with the Dreamtime story about Tiddilik the Frog, a fable about greed and about finding humour in bad situations. Indigenous art and the stories that lie behind them are really just an early technical manual for life itself, especially in a world where living for any length of time could be quite difficult.

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Who here remembers the story of Archimedes and his bath? It’s a demonstration of how Archimedes used water displacement to measure the density of an object (in this case, the king’s crown). Of course, the bit we all remember of the story, though, is that Archimedes, having made his discovery in the bath, went running naked through the streets of Syracuse, crying “Eureka! I have found it!”. This story comes to us from one of the oldest surviving technical manuals in existence, the “De architectura” by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, which was published in around 15BC. Of course, the Ancient Greeks & Romans were well known for their literature, their scholars, their philosophers, and perhaps above all, their library. The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt was the largest repository of knowledge in the world between the 3rd century BC and 30BC. The famous fire that destroyed it was probably set by Julius Caesar himself in 48BC, but the library continued in some capacity until the Roman Emperor Aurelian destroyed what remained in about 270AD. This was of course a massive blow to literature, but it also an incredible loss of technical data as well. Thankfully, the Ancients managed to keep going even after the library was destroyed, and we now have surviving copies of wonderful pieces like Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, which is essentially the world’s very first Natural History encyclopaedia, and which set the stage for many more technical manuals to come.

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Jumping over to Europe, Gutenberg did his thing with the printing press in the mid 1400s, but printed books were still a terrifically rare and expensive thing until well into the 15 and 1600s. Up until that period, if you were a fairly ordinary person in a fairly ordinary European town, you were probably aware of the existence of almost exactly one book: the bible that your local clergy had sitting on a plinth in your church. You probably couldn’t read yourself, or if you could probably not well enough to be able to read and understand a book written predominantly in a particularly stuffy version of Latin, and even if you could read that well, you wouldn’t be allowed to touch it. No, the bible was the word of God, and as such could only be read and interpreted by men of the cloth. They didn’t really want people going off and reading the Bible on their own and drawing their own conclusions about things. Of course, this got really interesting once the Reformation really started to get underway in the mid 1500s, and people started to read the Bible for themselves. In fact, for a little while there in England, Henry VIII decided that ordinary folk (and all women) were banned from reading the Bible. All this running around reading things and learning by everyday people was just a little too much for him to bear, especially when they started disagreeing with him.

Marianne_Stokes_(1855-1927)_-_-The_Frog_Prince-

Still in Europe, with better access to mass printing, publishing written versions of early verbal history became the thing to do. We all know the Brothers Grimm were writing fairy tales in German in the early 1800s, but they certainly weren’t the first to try and document the oral history of early Europeans. Charles Perrault is considered the original author of many of the Disney favourites, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, and he was writing in French over a century before the Grimms, in the late 1600s. But even he was just writing down stories he’d heard from others. My favourite version of Cinderella comes from Giambattista Basile, published in Neapolitan in 1634, some years after he died. These stories, gruesome as they were before Disney got a hold of them, were intended in many cases to be fables for children, with a moral story, but were also used as cautionary tales for adults. In Basile’s version of Cinderella a husband is warned of the horrors of not being too picky about your second or third wife, he gives a general warning to the household about choosing your housekeeping staff carefully, a warning to parents about treating children fairly, and a warning to young women about being proud. And that’s before we get to the bit Disney likes: “if you’re a good person, good things will happen to you”. Some versions of the story also slam home the opposing moral: “if you’re a bad person, bad things will happen to you”, with both the step-sisters either mutilating their own feet to fit the slipper, having their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding, or some equally terrible combination. As for other horrifying fairy tales, anyone who has read anything by Hans Christian Anderson will know that they often got worse before they got better. There’s a reason Disney never took on “The Little Match Girl”. For a long time, what we now know as fairy tales were the easiest and most entertaining way for a largely illiterate population to record and share moral stories and warnings.

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A ribbon that runs through all of these is the idea of the master and apprentice. These types of relationships began in Europe in the 1300s, and were a way for a trade person to get cheap labour, while a young apprentice got a bed to sleep on, food to eat, and the hope of a trade later on. This system was used throughout England and Europe for all skilled trades: from seamstresses and blacksmiths, to Knights with their squires. However, the general principles of apprenticeships exist throughout the world, with one of the earliest examples being the idea of a Maiko, or a trainee Geisha. Geisha have existed in Japan since around 700, and still take in Maiko to this day. While this isn’t written knowledge, it is an important footnote when we’re discussing the history of content, as this was the main way that specialised technical knowledge was handed down.

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Of course, a young apprentice, wishing to remember all the things they had learned, might be inclined to write them down. By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, paper and books had become affordable, schooling was more available to children throughout Europe, and literacy was becoming much more widespread, especially to those bright young apprentices who left home to seek their fortunes. And while young people have written home to their families since ancient times, letter writing really hit its stride around the turn of the century when it became not just a way to record their days and connect with their families, but also a way to explore political and religious matters, and explore emotions: poison pens, love letters, and obituaries are all well represented in letters. Another form of writing more like the manuals we know today of course, is the recipe book. Many household cooks would enshrine their recipes in writing, to be handed down to the next generation. I regularly bake a family choc chip biscuit recipe that has been handed down mother to daughter for at least five generations, and possibly quite a few more than that.

But enough history. The older writers in the audience will probably remember most of these more recent forms of technical communication. Some of the more unfortunate among you may still be working with some of them. In that case, I’m sorry.

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Printed books are pretty all of our yesterdays. In some ways, it still feels as though you’re not a REAL writer until you’ve got your name on the outside of an actual book, made out of dead tree, and sent from some printer. I chose a picture of O’Reilly books on purpose, as OpenStack released yet another of our manuals as O’Reilly dead tree version last year, although we have no immediate plans to repeat that in a hurry. Personally, I’m part of the problem here. I love having dead tree reference books, especially for things like Style Guides, which are somehow easier to have sitting on my desk as I write, rather than relying on an internet search (which can, for me, at least, be very distracting. Hello, Twitter!). As for writing them, though? No, I love the idea of being able to catch and fix errors even after publication. Nevertheless, printed books, especially technical manuals, are our history, our present and, to some extent at least, probably also our future.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

A close cousin of the printed manual, whitepapers are caught somewhere between marketing material and technical documentation. In digital form, they are probably not going to go away any time soon, but the printed whitepaper has almost certainly been confined to the recycling bin these days. My very first piece of technical writing was a white paper. I had a Marketing undergraduate degree and half an MBA, so it was a fairly logical piece of work for me to be doing at the time. I enjoyed it immensely, and immediately set out to become the whitepaper expert, intending to build a career around it. Thank goodness I discovered technical manuals in the meantime, and was saved from a life of writing whitepapers!

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And, finally in the ‘recent’ category, I have a screenshot from my very own project. This is, for all intents and purposes, an online version of a printed ‘book’. It has a table of contents down the side, divided into chapters and sections, and it’s designed to be read from beginning to end: simple concepts at the beginning, more complicated procedures as you move through, with reference information (tables of data, contact details, and a glossary) at the end.

These have all been great methods of getting information out there, but they are all destined to become as archaic as the fairy tales and the cave paintings we discussed earlier. Let’s take a look at those things we’re doing a little differently today, that will drive the way we revolutionise and improve content management in the future.

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First of all, I want to briefly touch on MOOCs. These are the future of face to face training courses. MOOCs not only allow people all around the world to study when and where they choose, but they also allow institutions to create online tool that mimic real world scenarios, and allow students to learn real skills in a safe environment. This is great especially for the tech industry, where students can work on realistic IT setups that they might not be able to recreate in their own environments, but it also works well for teaching other knowledge work skills such as customer service and financial skills.

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The main thing that, I think, changed the way we looked at the information we were creating, was DITA. Of course, DITA isn’t new. It was named in 2001, and formalised in 2005, but varying groups have been working on data mapping and the like since the 60s and 70s, and it became especially popular in the 90s, with the publication of JoAnn Hackos’s book ‘Managing Your Documentation Project’ (and later ‘Information Development’) a book probably most of us have on our shelves, and to which I (at least) still refer to regularly. DITA was really the first formal, open standard that let us consistently and accurately categorise data into formal types. And it was simple enough that we could all use it, remember it, and above all teach it to others easily. Even if you’re not using a specific DITA tool, the general principles of DITA–splitting content into one of only three data types–could be used to underpin any tooling system.

Of course, the main driving principle behind DITA (besides the categorisation) is about content reuse and single sourcing. This is another key component of how we’re changing the way we look at content. It’s not about a beginning and an end any more. With this idea, we walked away from the age old idea of delivering a story, and moved towards this critical period of considering what information is required where, and when. This was important mostly because we were actually starting to consider how people consume information, and learned difficult concepts. We no longer assumed that information we gave to people in the beginning of a book stuck with them as they moved through the rest of the content. Sometimes, learners needed to go over information again and again before they actually learned it and could apply that information to later, more complicated, tasks. And, being the inherently lazy writers that we are, we didn’t want to retype that every time. So single sourcing and content reuse were naturally very easy for us to adopt.

And that leads me to perhaps my favourite topic right now: every page is page one. This is a model designed by Mark Baker, and while his model is certainly not the only one out there, it’s certainly one of the best developed. The general idea behind this is that no piece of content is more or less important than any other. It’s not quite DITA, in that a ‘page’ in EPPO terms is much bigger than a ‘topic’ in DITA terms. The best example comes from Baker himself, where he refers to a recipe. A recipe contains, in DITA terms, a concept (some information about the recipe, that describes what you’re actually creating, and maybe some background, where the recipe has come from, and the types of ingredients that you need), followed by a procedure (the actual steps of the recipe), and finished with reference information (serving suggestions, maybe information on converting measurements, or ingredient substitutions). In EPPO, the entire recipe is the ‘page’: it contains everything you need to be able to perform the task, including all that concept and reference info. One of the best ways to think about EPPO is in terms of a Wikipedia page, there are links to further information if you need it (and I’m sure all of us here have gotten sidetracked by clicking those links in a Wikipedia article!), but that page contains all the specific information about a particular topic. There is no beginning to Wikipedia, and there is most certainly no end.

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So this leads me to the big question: what does the future hold for content? I think there are a few main themes we can tease out of our little journey through documentation:
The internet is making things possible that never were before
Control over content is shifting from those producing it, to those consuming it.
Consumers are used to being able to search vast resources for content, and filtering those results themselves. They don’t want us to tell them what they need to know.

Since well before the birth of Christ, in one form or another, we’ve been writing stories. Now the internet allows people to create their own stories, not just have one told to them. In many ways, this shows a maturation in human development: we’re no longer willing to receive whatever is fed to us, we want to create our own realities, and we have the tools to be able to do that.

But that is a massive challenge–and (I would argue) an opportunity–for technical writers. We get to break new ground, and thankfully we’ve been working on the building blocks of this type communication for a few decades now. The challenge now is to start delivering documentation in a completely new way, without leaving our organisations, our management, or our more stubborn clients behind. Nobody said breaking new ground would not require effort, or determination. As we shed old ideas, old processes, old technologies, and old systems, there will be people who decry change, and impede our progress. But even if you only manage to implement a small piece of your grand vision, even if all you ever get to do is plant a seed of an idea in someone’s head that maybe–just maybe–there’s a different way to do things, then you have succeeded. After all, every one of the pieces of content I have mentioned here had its detractors, from every day ‘concerned citizens’, right up to royalty, and the literati.

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I mentioned Archimedes earlier, but now I would like to pick a different quote of his: give me a lever and a firm place to stand, and I shall move the world.

Right now it seems to me, that where we could go next is almost infinite. People have always created and consumed content. As long as we continue to put the information out there, and give people the tools to find it, they will continue to do so. We are not at the end of a journey, nor at the beginning of one. We are merely at a step along a very long road. Let’s find out where it leads us.


References: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10meNxWpeiyYprcQjOFIBZJlm3xEiWgarN5GVk1uhJOM/edit?usp=sharing

This was originally presented as a keynote at the Australian Technical Writers’ Association Conference in Melbourne on 23 October, 2015. No video recording exists of this talk.

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