Wholesale returns of conjecture

A new year has dawned and, once again, we’re hearing a lot about trends and about how things will look in the future.

I hold with what Mark Twain said about spotting and predicting trends:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. (from Life on the Mississippi)

If Twain were alive today, I think he’d raise an eyebrow at some things that are being touted as surefire trends.

I remember when electricity was going to become so clean and so cheap that it wouldn’t need to be metered. When we’d have colonies on Mars within 20 years. When the “paperless office” was just around the corner. (If you don’t remember that one, I can probably find it on the web and convert it to PDF so you can print it.)

Of the surefire trends in technical communication, which ones might be rooted in a trifling investment of fact? Which ones are based on limited data, or bad data? Which ones depend on the world working differently than it always has?

More media choices, and more devices on which to display them. The proliferation of gadgets continues unabated. There’ll be winners and losers, though, because there always are. And at some point the market will be saturated.

How can publishers, including technical communicators, pick the media that will be viable in the long term without being led astray by fads?

Smart content. There’s no stopping this one. My only question is: are we technical communicators ready for it? Do we really understand the importance of metadata and how to use it effectively?

Without a good metadata taxonomy, and without a solid content strategy to back it up, smart content (to quote another writer you’ve heard of) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Collaborative, community-based documentation. User-generated content continues to gain momentum, but not as fast as we thought at first. That’s because getting it right takes a lot of work, and a lot of issues have to be ironed out. Like finding content formats that work for everyone, and like deciding who owns the rights to the content.

What do you think? Do you see issues that are being overlooked? Do you see “trends” that are grounded more in conjecture than in reality?

Adapted from material originally published on the SDI blog, 30 November 2010

2 thoughts on “Wholesale returns of conjecture

  1. MarciaRieferJohnston (@MarciaRJohnston)


    This is wonderful: “Without a good metadata taxonomy, and without a solid content strategy to back it up, smart content (to quote another writer you’ve heard of) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Here’s one possible overextrapolation: the prediction that the use of mobile devices will displace the use of desktop devices. Yes, as of 2014, people access the Internet more on mobile devices than on PCs (http://searchenginewatch.com/sew/opinion/2353616/mobile-now-exceeds-pc-the-biggest-shift-since-the-internet-began#). But desktop computing – like the Lower Mississippi – isn’t going to dwindle to nothing (https://jenson.org/small/).

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Marcia. I agree that the death of desktop computing has been greatly exaggerated. You’ve touched on a common fallacy: just because a new thing is ascending, doesn’t mean the old thing is descending at the same rate.


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