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 lets 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.