The Role of the Manual and the End of Civilization

By | 2015/01/22

An interesting article in Popular Science charts the rise and laments the fall of the manual. Instructions Not Included: What the Disappearance of the Common Manual Says About Us, traces the origins of the manual as a form of technical communication, and notes how many products now come with no manual. It draws from this dire fears of human decline.

By dispensing with [manuals], we could, consciously or no, be setting the stage for something few would relish: a society divided.

This is accomplished by a parlor trick in two parts. The first is to build up the civilization changing role of the manual:

These books, filled with ingenious methods, offered something new and relatively democratic: agency, skill, and command for anyone who could read.

With this proposition established, it draws dire conclusions from the disappearance of the manual:

The aggregate effect, culturally, may be that less is less. The less we’re inclined to know about our devices, the more beholden we are to the manufacturers that make them, and the more we offer control to those who, for good or for ill, know more than we do. If manuals began as great equalizers, then their disappearance should at least give us pause. By dispensing with them, we could, consciously or no, be setting the stage for something few would relish: a society divided.

Of course, this is coming from Popular Science, a magazine targeted at people who like to know how stuff works, so we can perhaps understand why they would foresee apocalyptic consequences for the loss of anything that explains how stuff works.

But the argument is bosh. Here’s why. Let’s start with:

something new and relatively democratic: agency, skill, and command for anyone who could read

The problem with this is that human beings have had access to agency, skill, and command for as long as we have lived in groups and taught our children. Yes, books sped up the transmission of knowledge, just as the horse, and the sailing ship sped up the transmission of goods, and that had important consequences for civilization.

But we don’t use horses and sailing ships for freight anymore, and yet goods still move. The manual has been displaced, for a wide range of goods, by a combination of improved interfaces and online informations sources, as the article itself notes:

the help we once sought from a manual is now mostly embedded into the apps we use every day. It could also be crowdsourced, with users contributing Q&As or uploading how-to videos to YouTube, or it could programmed into a weak artificial intelligence such as Siri or Cortana.

The article acknowledges as well that most people were never actually using the manuals as they were intended to be used. It quotes John Carroll’s work on minimalism, calling him “The Man Who Killed The Manual”, and acknowledges:

The disappearance of the manual-as-book coincides, moreover, with documented realities about how people actually learn to use new tools and devices. Studies published by the Society for Technical Communication, which regularly reports on “human-machine interaction,” suggest that even when manuals are available, people tend not to read or use them.

How the disappearance of something most people never used could have dire consequences for democracy is not clear.

The danger, the article suggests, lies in ceding control over our tools:

Yet even as we gladly cede more and more control of our tools, a growing chorus is calling attention to the costs. In his book Who Owns the Future?, computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier uses the analogy of the Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey. The creatures would lull sailors into complacency with their beautiful songs, only to have their boats wreck on the rocks. Lured by the convenience of the Internet, search engines, and all that they promise, most consumers are, in Lanier’s estimation, similar to those doomed sailors: a little too ready to give “the sirens control of the interaction.”

Of course, if people were not reading the manuals that were supposed to give us this control, it is hard to see how the disappearance of the manual is to blame for its loss. Rather, it seems, the blame should be placed on those who choose not to bother to learn how their tools work, and therefore don’t demand access to manuals.

The real problem with this argument, however, is that regardless of how much control people want to exercise over their tools, access to information that would let them exercise that control is far more abundant and far easier to access than ever before in history — and not by a small margin.

Want to know how to root your phone? Doing so gives you much greater control over the device. But no manufacturer or carrier was ever going to put that information in a manual. It is trivial to find it on the Web.

The Web makes the manual obsolete not by giving less information to those who don’t want it, but by giving far far more to those who do. Manufactures increasingly build devices that are not designed to be fixed, either to reduce costs, drive upgrade sales, or protect the repair services of their distributors. Yet the Web allows companies like iFixIt and millions of amateur boffins and tinkerers to distribute information on how to fix the unfixable.

The decline of the manual, and the rise of the Web, has given those who wish to exercise it exponentially more control over the devices they own. We are living in the golden age of technical communication; the manual, however, belongs to its bronze age.

But let’s return to the question of who owns the future. Three hundred years ago, most human beings were farmers, and had been farmers for untold generations. Knowing how to grow your own food must have seemed like the most fundamental of skills. Certainly, the right to own land (on which to grow that food) was considered the key to democracy and freedom, and voting rights were tied to landholding for many centuries. Even the wealth of nobles and kings came from farming.

Today, farming is a specialty practiced by a few. Most of us would be lost if we had to feed ourselves from the land. Are we thereby less free? Considering that for most of human civilization, most people never travelled more than 30 miles from the place they were born, it would seem not.

Rather, I would suggest, the future belongs to those whose reliable devices — devices that “just work” — allow them to focus their energy and attention on other things. It is hard to develop the next generation of Web apps if you have to spend 12 hours a day following a plow in order to put bread on the table.

This, I would suggest, is how human civilization progresses: by reducing processes to their optimal form and improving machines to their highest level of reliability and simplicity, so that we can stop thinking about them and focus on the next thing. Once a process is efficient enough to be left to a few specialists, once a machine no longer require special expertise to use and maintain, we are free to move on to the next problem.

Thus we live on a kind of rolling frontier, always exploring the next thing that our conquest of the last thing leaves us the leisure and the mental resources to attack.

Technical communication lives on this frontier, at the place where the new and the imperfect things are being invented which require active thought and extensive information. The need for extensive customer-facing documentation is a stage in the life-cycle of a product. Caterpillars need docs; butterflies don’t.

The manual, in its time, helped improve access to that information, and thus helped roll the frontier forward faster. But today it is too slow to keep up. We have better ways to gather, express, and disseminate the information needed to keep the frontier moving.

The future for the writers of manuals,therefore, is bleak, but the future for technical communication is bright.

13 thoughts on “The Role of the Manual and the End of Civilization

  1. Larry Kunz

    I felt uneasy when I read the Popular Science article, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Until I read this. You’ve clearly shown that there’s a difference between manuals and information, and you’ve shown that as long as there’s a future there’ll be a place for technical communication. This might be the best blog post you’ve ever written.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks Larry! Yes, a big difference between manuals and information. As Barry says, a big difference between medium and message.

  2. Barry Schaeffer

    We often confuse the medium with the message, no less so in this case. Manuals, when they came into general use in the 1850s, were actually a filler to take the place of the “journeyman” system that had been in use for several hundred years. Journeymen craftsmen, having been trained by a master, were like human manuals, going to the towns where they were needed and providing the necessary expertise. With the growth of industrial society and population, the journeyman system fell behind and was replaced by printed manuals that although not as capable as experts in the field, were less expensive and easily reproducible (one of the first major uses was for erection of the Crystal Palace, the first steel, engineered building, in 1852 for the Exposition in London.) By doing this, we replaced the medium but not the message: how to use and repair manufactured items.

    As early as the 1980’s, the defense world began working with electronic maintenance aids (see the Navy’s NTIPPS Program in Carderock, MD), mistakenly called IETMs (Interactive Electronic Technical “Manuals”.) Here, again, we changed the medium but kept the purpose the same.

    Now with the growth of the Internet, we have begun again to change the medium by integrating the instructions in the apps or tools or placing them on the Internet. But the purpose remains the same: tell users how to use and repair the items, whatever they are. There will be, as there always is, mistakes and missteps along this path, but the goal will remain the same; make stuff usable. The marketplace will weed out those who don’t meet this goal–if you buy something with a manual written by people with only schoolbook familiarity with English, you probably won’t go back for more.

    It seems to me that to impute some anthropological doomsday scenario into a process that has been ongoing for at least 300 years (and in which I have been involved directly for nearly 50) is a bit more navel gazing than I am comfortable with.

    1. Kaylin

      As far as I can tell, it is human nature to impute anthropological doomsday scenarios and make other sensational claims. I don’t know if the problem comes from people attempting to converse on things they may not be totally knowledgeable on, or simply attention-seeking, but I can guarantee pretty much every profession has a contingent of reporters and seers telling them it’s all going down in flames.

      1. Mark Baker Post author

        Thanks for the comment Kaylin,

        Indeed, we do seem to have a taste for simple doomsday scenarios. Part of the problem with them is that people start to take a binary view: it is either status quo or doomsday, so if doomsday has not happened, the status quo must be fine. This can prevent us from adapting to changes that are less than doomsday, but which should still demand a response from us. Nowhere is this doomsday-or-status-quo divide more evident than in the current climate debate.

  3. Mark Baker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Barry.

    Yes, the article is definitely confusing the vehicle for the transmission of technical information with the fact of its transmission. New vehicles replace old, but the transmission continues and increases.

    I wish I could agree with “if you buy something with a manual written by people with only schoolbook familiarity with English, you probably won’t go back for more,” but I don’t think its true.

    First, functionality trumps everything. If something has functionality that they can’t get elsewhere, poor docs is not going to stop the buying.

    Second, given multiple sources of functionality, price trumps doc quality, unless it is evident to the consumer that doc quality changes total cost of ownership enough to overcome higher price. (This is probably true far more often than customers believe it to be true.)

    Third, the community can supply the information that the manufacturer neglects to supply. In many cases, in fact, a robust community is one of the key selling points of a technology, and the amount of content they generate is one of the key indicators of how robust the community is.

  4. Alessandro Stazi

    Hi Mark. I agree with your point of view and i seem that the article of Popular Science is very confused. During my public speaking on new paradigms of tech communication, when I say that traditional manuals can be again useful but are “the past” of tech writing, my audience is often disoriented. I have analyzed this feeling and I think that’s not clear the difference between “formative reading” and “informative reading”. When I must learn a very complex matter (e.g. Electonic), i need an approach sequential and hierarchical: i must learn first of all the basic circuit laws (Ohm, Norton, Thevenin,…) and basic components. After this i must learn basic circuits where the basic elements can be linked toegether. After this i wll learn the nature of digital components and their charachteristics and so on, until to arrive to study complex configurations of transistors and microchips. This path can requires several yerars and need of a “sequential” and “hierarchical” approach, based on “formative reading”, tarditionally delivered by traditional books/manuals. But when I’m an Electronoc Engineer and I choose a new solution for my circuits, very likely I need only a short data-sheet of the new components for understanding it’s functioning. A component data-sheet is an example of “informative reading”, where i find DIRECTLY all the information taht I need for a specic task and context. Many people are not again used to “formative reading” and are in panic because they have fear to loose the control of processes of information management, when different tools and new approachs are breaking the tradition. And that’s all, in my opinion.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alessandro,

      The distinction you mention certainly exists. The question that interests me is, why does it exist? My speculation is that we are fundamentally oriented to learn from experience and from direct interaction with other people. However, some things are much harder to learn by experience than others, either because of danger, distance, expense, or abstraction.

      One of our greatest achievements as humans is our ability to collect common experiences, roll them up, compare and contrast them, and reason our way to more general conclusions. By its very nature, this process takes us away from direct experience, and therefore into the realm of books. And then from this abstract understanding we can draw conclusions that can lead back to concrete action and experience. Thus we have a virtuous cycle between content and experience.

      One of the consequences for technical communication is that how people use content varies depending on how hands on they can be with the technology. Some tech is so dangerous and/or expensive that you need a careful apprenticeship before you will be allowed to touch it. Other stuff you can safely learn by playing with it.

      I’m not sure if the difference between formative reading and informative reading is a different cognitive mode or if it simply reflects a difference between learning stuff you can play with vs. learning stuff you can’t. Either way, it is a difference we clearly need to keep in mind when we create technical content.

      On the other hand, what we should not be doing is deciding arbitrarily that it would be better for people to learn first and do afterwards. That decision is not ours to make (though in some cases it may be our customer’s to make, if they impose training or certification requirements on the employees who use the machines we document). Our job is to provide content that supports the approach our users actually take.

  5. Alessandro Stazi

    SORRY… in the last phrase I have wrote “formative” but I had intention to write “informative”… lapsus…

  6. Sean Bentley

    First of all, I believe the message of Mr. Svenvold’s article can be extrapolated from print manuals to whatever content delivery system is used. The burgeoning tendency to effectively hide information about your product by downsizing it and relegating it to crowdsourcing, merely for the sake of the bottom line, not only does a great disservice to end users, it fails to upsell your product, and, not insignificantly, self-perpetuates an unsettling paternalistic vibe.

    Users feel stupid if they can’t figure something out, and resent being made to go through hoops to find out what should be obvious. We’ve known this for years. Software companies are already often perceived to be “evil” – but making users chase all over hell and gone to winnow the information they need from the buckets of dross on the Web is not going to win them any more friends – this is the dichotomy that Svenvold is talking about, furthering the rift between “all-knowing” marketing-driven corporations and normal people just trying to get their job done.

    I should note that my perspective is of a tech editor/writer (like Mr. Svenvold) who started back in the day of large manuals and now, after several massive layoffs of content specialists, is being required to write a handful of Help topics on a fraction of features and functionality, and to trust that people will Google for each other’s random findings when they have questions. As they most certainly will. (Talk about distracting users from the task at hand!)

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Sean,

      Needless to say, I disagree with most of it, but I do agree that companies should continue to produce good documentation. That many no longer do so is, I think, largely the fault of tech writers who have failed to come up with a model of technical communication that works for the Web age.

      The picture you paint of the web as chaotic and unorganized is simply incorrect, however. The Web does not have traditional top down organization from the book world, but the Web is enormously successful, the dominant form of information finding in almost every domain today, and usually the easiest way to find information on most subjects. It did not get into that position, in such a short time, by being ineffective. By the old canons of information organization, the Web ought not to work. But it clearly does work, so we need to focus on understanding why rather than condemning it for not following the old rules.

      This is why it is so important to understand bottom-up information architecture. Yes, it is hard to step back and visualize the overall structure of a bottom-up information architecture, so the methods we are used to using to assess organization and even to create it no longer apply. This is disconcerting for writers.

      But readers do not turn to the Web when the manual fails them. They start on the Web because that is what common experience has taught them is the best way to find the information they are looking for. This is not only because of top-down vs. bottom-up architecture, of course, but because of the scope, richness, and diversity of the Web, which no manual can ever match. In fact, it is the benefits of that enormous scope of information that drives us to bottom-up information architecture. Top-down architecture simply does not scale to information sets this large.

      It would be enormously beneficial to companies if their documentation featured prominently in the results that their users find when they search the Web. It would help generate leads, upsell customers, and create brand identification and loyalty. It would also make users more productive.

      But we are simply never going to get there as long as we keep writing traditional manuals. And as long as that is what we produce, our employers are going to wonder exactly what they are paying for, since no one is reading the things.

      We are no longer the sole source of truth, but a voice in the choir. We need to learn to be an effective, even leading, voice in that choir. This the the subject of the presentation I am giving at the Spectrum Conference in Rochester

  7. Sharada

    Hi Mark

    Yes, it is largely the fault of tech writers in not coming up with a right model for the Web age. As Larry Kunz said, I too felt uneasy when I read Svenvold’s article. The challenge is finding that model, and adapting it practically. And then keep checking if it still works…


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