Re: RE. Text is bad?

Subject: Re: RE. Text is bad?
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>, "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 17 Mar 2000 11:55:40 -0500

My point about Chinese was not to debate the attributes of each language,
but to point out that pictographic writing is not dead at all, but living in
the best possible way. There are many more Chinese speakers in the world
than English ones, despite the long period of time the Chinese have had to
recognize any obvious benefits to English and jettison their cumbersome,
clumsy, antique language.

> Not in the least. English is far more precise and flexible than Chinese. I
> make no pretense of speaking for the Chinese, nor of being expert in the
> language, but there's no question that the Chinese system of writing is
> cumbersome and inefficient even for native Chinese. >
> <<The fact is that reading, unlike speech, is an acquired skill>>

I'm not familiar with Pinker's work, but everything else I've read, both in
and out of college, suggests that speaking is inevitable for humans. Witness
that children left without speakers around them after birth eventually
develop their own spoken language. Because spoken languages are essential
for human interaction, we can surely infer that spoken languages existed for
at least hundreds of thousands of years, while our archaeological records
for written ones go back only a few thousand. Further, primitive tribes
always have a spoken language, but few ever bother with a written one. We
are aural and visual, not textual by nature. We learn to write, generally at
a later age than we learn to speak.

Too, I should specify that I'm not advocating mere graphical printed devices
like icons a la Horton. Those, too, are similar to text in that they are
susceptible to multiple interpretations. I'm going further and stating that
one demonstration is worth a library of words. Video, personal training,
photographs...these are demonstratably far superior to text descriptions in
any case involving concrete objects. Philosophy, on the other hand, may be
better diddled with text, but few tech writers have to write about

Text is an unsure medium *regardless* of the skill of the writer. The
problem isn't literacy or skill, but the depth of detail. Consider this
thought example. I'm about to show you a thought film of my right hand
handing my left hand my pen. Ready? Here it is...

<film rolls>

Were you able to see that film, you would instantly know exactly how to
duplicate that action. However, here's the same instruction set rendered in

1. Be sure pen is in right hand.
2. Move right hand and left hand into close proximity.
3. Grip exposed part of pen with left hand.
4. Release grip of right hand.
5. Move hands apart.

Now, that instruction set seems pretty clear. But is the pen upside down?
Should it remain upright, or can it rotate? And which is "right" or "left"?
What if the user doesn't know the word "proximity"? What is "close"? Which
fingers should be used?

An absurdly simple example, of course. But it illustrates the problems of
larger instruction sets. Consistency throughout a document is an enormous
help, but even consistency can't resolve problems of meaning for words like
"insert", "twist", "turn", or "enter". These words are easy to interpret as
one wishes, despite their apparent simplicity. For "insert" alone, how is
that to take place? At what angle? How far? With what force?

This uncertainty doesn't even take into consideration the problem of English
as a second language, rendering many English words problematic. Nor does it
consider the problem of translations. Some humans are incapable of reading,
due to dyslexia or other disorders. For all of these situations, the best
way to cross the gap is with visual representations.

For truly wonderful applications of graphical documentation, look at many of
the documents from Hewlett-Packard. They're masterpieces of excellent
drawings that can be understood by everyone.

I repeat my thesis: Text is occasionally the most economically feasible
knowledge transfer method, but it is almost always inferior in transfer
value to a direct visual experience, be that experience video, drawings, or
in-person demonstration. Note that I'm not speaking primarily of icons,
buttons, or other symbolic devices that must be interpreted much as text is,
but more of true visual examples of actions. I'm also not talking about
visual presentations that contain abstractions, such as patriotism or
morality. I'm talking about what most people talk do I get this
damn job done?

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

RE. Text is bad?: From: Hart, Geoff

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