Re: Impact of information explosion on our profession

Subject: Re: Impact of information explosion on our profession
From: "Steven J. Owens" <puff -at- NETCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 01:06:48 -0800

> On Wednesday, March 20, 1996 2:10 PM, someone wrote:
> >Just as the first cars were buggies with internal combustion engines,
> >we're still producing manuals and other materials with linear
> capabilities.

Kent Newton replied:
> However you want to look at it, today's cars are still buggies with
> internal combustion engines. [...] The first cars still perform the
> same basic function as today's.

If you define that function as "move us from one location
linearly through space to another location while remaining in contact
with the ground", then yes, they perform the same basic function. And
if you think of them as just chassis with engines driving wheels, then
yes, they work basically the same way.

But in the larger picture, since the development of the first
practical combusion-powered vehicle, the vehicles themselves have
changed greatly, in performance, style, size, shape, capabilities,
reliability, cost, and many more factors. Books have changed just
as much.

Additionally, today we have many combustion-powered vehicles that
work in entirely new ways compared to cars - taking us through the
air, or water, through tunnels, on rails, even (in some more baroque
cases, like hovercraft) through more than one medium. And we're
beginning to see information-delivery vehicles that work in entirely
new ways, like hypertext and multimedia.

> I think that is pretty much the same with our industry: we now have
> variety of options with a lot of bells and whistles like hypertext and
> web pages and electronic help files, but they are still basically the
> same as manuals: in the end, they all get us from point A to point B.

They all get us from lacking knowledge to having knowledge, true,
but the difference (potentially) lies in the way they get us from one
to the other. Take a look at books down through the ages, you'll see
major differences in style, layout, organization, between books
written in the 14th century and today. And while it's quite easy to
find some real snore-inducers today, it's also easier to find useful,
readable, easy-to-use books. And I haven't even begun to factor in
new media like hypertext and (true) multimedia.

> The problem I see with trying to come up with new "non-linear paradigms"
> for providing information is that, at the core, we are still limited by a
> linear form of expression: language. Try as you might, you still have to
> place one word after another after another

Language is linear, certainly, but how often have you used a
reference book linearly? Even if it has good introductory material
and conceptual overviews that you read through linearly when you first
work with the product, you almost certainly go to a hunt & read
method afterwards - and most people go straight to hunting around for
topics, following references, checking the index and then going to
the page that contains the topic they want. Why, it sounds almost
like hypertext! :-)

Hypertext is not easy. There are far, far too many poor examples
of it today, being called hypertext. Good hypertext takes a lot of
work and good information design, a careful balancing act between
providing enough entry points and links to be accessible but not
vivisecting the information down so far that you go crazy trying to
find a solid bite to eat, between providing enough cross-referencing
and losing the user out there in hyperspace. Good hypertext thrills
you with out effortless and easy it makes learning.

Likewise, multimedia, information that uses text, graphics, sound
and motion and whatever else, in coordinated conjunction, is not easy.
While it's easy to find many examples of less-than-effective
multimedia, that doesn't mean the idea is bad. Good multimedia
draws on both the analytical and creative sides of the brain (to
recognize, parse and understand words and to almost simultaneously
perceive images, colors, textures that add relevance to the words).
Truly great multimedia lets you drop into that zoned-out state of
mind where you're focusing entirely on the material and not noticing
the process itself, or the flow of time.

Truly good hypertext is out there, although it's hard to find.
Does anybody have any favorite suggestions for well-done hypertext?

Truly good multimedia is even harder to come by. I don't have
any electronic examples. I think that, in the computer realm, the
potential of multimedia is mostly unfulfilled to date. Comic books
and graphic novels can be impressive low-tech demonstrations of the
concept. Check out Scott McCloud's excellent non-fiction graphic
novel, _Understanding Comics_.

The skills and abilities we bring to writing are in many ways
unchanged from those required in the past. An understanding of the
topic (which means the ability to quickly grasp new topics, to
research and interview), the ability to organize information and state
it concisely, intelligibly. The ability to write, in short.

But the potential techniques for human communication are much
broader, and will ultimately require new and different applications of
those skills, along with the skills of related fields, like
illustration and graphic design, information analysis, interface
design, cognitive design, industrial design. We're also seeing our
role change, from passive after-the-fact documentation to more
integrated involvement with development. Documentation is no longer
discrete and entirely separate from the product. Nor can we be
discrete and entirely separate from the product development process.

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- netcom -dot- com

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