Tag Archives: technology

Honoring scientists, honoring science

Statue of Jöns Jacob Berzelius in Stockholm, SwedenOn a recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden, I encountered this fellow presiding over a pleasant city park that bears his name.

I’m ashamed to say that I had to look him up in the encyclopedia. Jöns Jacob Berzelius is considered a pioneer in chemistry, having developed the modern notation for chemical formulas in the early nineteenth century. In Sweden he’s so highly regarded that he not only has a park named after him, but his birthday (August 20) is observed as Berzelius Day.

What is it about the Swedes – who also created the Nobel Prize – that they so gladly celebrate the great scientists in their midst? More to the point, what is it about us Americans that we don’t? Oh, we love our inventors, because we love their technology and we love the economic benefits that come from their technology. But we rarely celebrate pure science. Where are the statues of great researchers and great theoreticians?

Sad to say, many Americans are skeptical of science. They’d rather mock science — for example, by throwing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber — than take it seriously. They don’t want to know the earth is getting warmer, because that might mean they can’t drive their beloved SUVs.

We love our freedom and we always have. But lately that freedom has turned into a license to live whatever lifestyle we like — with no ivory-tower, pointy-headed scientist telling us what to do.

It’s a damn shame. It’s an attitude that will hurt our country severely in the long run. And because our country is so big and so influential, it’s going to hurt the whole world. Already is hurting it.

We should take a lesson from Sweden – a country that knows how to honor its great scientists and a country that, not coincidentally, earns high marks for sustainability and for its use of renewable energy sources.

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IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

Have you heard? IBM is giving us a “new way to work.” It’s turned up its marketing fluff machine full blast, on behalf of software called IBM Verse.

According to the fluff, IBM wanted to create a technology platform that would make workers more efficient, by finding and connecting the myriad pieces of information they had at their disposal. To build this platform, they say, they decided to start with email.

Screen image of IBM Verse user interface

IBM Verse user interface

 

 

 

Email?

Yep. Email. If you listen to the fluff, email is the bane of every office worker’s existence. IBM’s webinars and YouTube videos describe the demoralizing and productivity-draining experience of starting each day with an overflowing inbox and never being able to catch up.

Maybe that’s how it is at IBM. But here in the rest of the world, that sales pitch is outdated.
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New technologies and their stories

Machines that tell stories. What potential do they hold — both commercially and otherwise? How might they affect the professions of journalism and technical communication?

Robot reading a book

Will “robots” soon write stories and then read them to us? (Image source: Matanya Horowitz)

I came upon a fascinating article this week, titled New technologies and their stories. The article’s contents were curated by design researcher Hanna Zoon at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

I greatly enjoyed the article, despite a couple of hindrances in reading it. First, Zoon often refers to herself in the third person. Second, the article is in German. (My rusty high-school German, buttressed by Google Translate, rode to the rescue.)

Zoon starts by saying “Computers can do different things than people.” Then she describes some of those things.
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Technology doesn’t make it Tech Comm

A colleague of mine is creating a training course for new technical communicators. In it, she includes the definition of technical communication from the STC website. (It’s easy to find: right at the top of the About pull-down.)

“Technical communication,” STC says, “is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics [emphasis STC’s]:”

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

STC logoI’m good with items 1 and 3. It’s the second item that stops me in my tracks.

According to item 2, this blog post is technical communication. It communicates (at least I flatter myself that it does). And it’s published using a social-media platform.

According to item 2, every article in The Onion is technical communication. And every tweet by @A_single_bear.

It gets worse. A telephone is technology. So every obscene phone call — no matter what vile and/or creepy things it communicates — is technical communication.

STC, by assuming that technology implies technical, has given us a ridiculously broad definition for our profession.

My request is a simple one: Would someone at STC headquarters please fix that definition? Deleting the one bullet would probably do the trick — although you’re welcome to any of the ideas I shared in my first-ever post on this blog: What is technical communication?

That’s all. I don’t think I’m asking for too much. I’d just like to know that “the world’s leading organization dedicated to advancing the field of technical communication” (again, quoting from the website) actually knows what technical communication is.

Hot Lead to Hot Technology: Whither Technical Communication?

This month I was called in to assist on a technical-writing project that uses old technology. Really old technology. Which got me to thinking: the variety of output formats for our content, the number of tools for developing that content, and the range of skills needed to master all of the above, have never been greater. What does that mean for the people in our profession?

I began working in technical communication around the time that disco died (thank heaven) and Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigan sweaters. Everything we produced took the form of printed documents. At IBM we used a relatively new markup language called SCRIPT/VS, with which we could control indentation and vertical spacing. The U.S. Government, then as now one of the most prolific publishers on the planet, had embraced MilSpecs (military specifications).

Most technical communicators at that time were still in the “hot lead” world, composing on a typewriter (usually) and than handing their content over to be typeset and printed on a literal printing press.

1980: A gently-sloped pyramid showing a limited set of tools and formats

1980: Print, print, print

I’ve drawn a pyramid to represent the output formats and tools we worked with then. There weren’t very many of them, and the distance from the bottom of the pyramid to the top — in terms of training and skill set — was pretty small.

1995: Taller pyramid showing new tools like HTML and PageMaker

1995: Brave new online world

By the time I’d settled into mid-career, desktop publishing was all the rage. Microsoft Word (introduced in the mid ’80s) was already a staple of most Tech Comm departments. The World Wide Web, as it was then known, introduced many technical communicators to a new kind of writing: semantic-based tagging, in the form of HTML. We were excited to see our content displayed on computer screens and not just on printed pages.

The old formats and tools were still in place — although “hot lead” was fast fading from the scene. But the pyramid had become more crowded. The distance had increased from the top, where the cool kids got to play, to the bottom.

2014: Still taller pyramid, showing older tools at bottom and new ones, like HTML5, at the top

2014: Publishing everywhere

Nearly 20 years later, the pyramid has grown again. Many Tech Comm projects are still done in Word — probably more than with any other single tool. MilSpecs are still in common use. Hard-copy (or at least PDF) still predominates.

I used to tell my students they could do practically any job if they knew an authoring tool (besides Word), a help-authoring tool, and a graphics tool. But today’s jobs increasingly require new skills like structured authoring and mobile-app development.

But we’re also creating content that’s integrated with the technology, and content that displays on tablets and smartphones, using new tools that are both text-based and graphical. Today, there’s a sizable leap from the skills needed to work with the old technology to those needed to work with the new.

2020: The steepest pyramid of all, with new technologies (like wearable technology) included

2020: To infinity and beyond

In the not-so-distant future, I see us making use of even more new formats and tools. Augmented reality. Wearable technology. Things we don’t yet have a name for. Yet the demand for Word, for PDF, for the older technologies, won’t go away. The pyramid continues to go higher.

So what will our profession look like?

  1. Are we evolving to a place where everyone is a specialist and no one is a generalist? After all, while anyone can master a few technologies, it’s impossible to be proficient in them all.
  2. In light of #1, how will we buck the trend toward recruiters who seek candidates based on the tools they know?
  3. Will certain parts of the Tech Comm business — particularly the parts that rely on the older technology — become commoditized? (For that matter, there’s significant support for the idea that the whole profession is becoming commoditized, and I can’t say for sure that it isn’t.)
  4. What’s the best way to train people who are entering the profession? People who are already in the profession and who want to burnish their skills?

I very much want to hear what you think. So please drop me a line (or several lines) in the comments area.

Tearing down a myth

Voters in Houston, Texas, have rejected a proposal that would’ve spent millions to refurbish the aging Astrodome. As a result, it’ll probably be demolished.Houston Astrodome - aerial view

I have no desire to second-guess the voters, who opted for the choice that made the most sense to them. Still, I lament the passing of a building that’s both a literal and a cultural landmark.

The opening of the Harris County Domed Stadium in 1965 made national news at a time when Americans were in love with technology. Continue reading