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Technical Writers, Defenders of Truth
2012, Q1 (April 09, 2012)
By Michael Harvey, STC Fellow
Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

In the Internet age, the greatest long-term threat to a genuinely citizen-centric society—a world in which technology and government serve citizens instead of the other way around—looks less like Orwell's 1984 and more like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World: a world where our desire for security, entertainment, and material comfort is manipulated to the point that we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation. If we are to avoid this dystopian fate, political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.

“If Not Orwell, then Huxley: The Battle for Control Over the Internet,” Rebecca MacKinnon, The Atlantic, February 2012.

More often than not, technical communicators focus on prosaic details of tools, terms, and technology. And why not? It is what we are paid to do. But I assert that technical communicators have an important political role to fulfill as well. Serving that role does not entail registering to vote, aligning with a particular movement or point-of-view, or occupying anything. It simply requires us to do what we do best, and to do it to the best of our abilities. It obliges us to assiduously hunt down the facts and then stick to them. It compels us to be truly honest brokers of information, whether that information is in a manual, a webcast, a video, or a tweet.

Hunting Down the Facts

Hunting down the facts does not mean going on a crusade. Sometimes it can be as simple as rechecking the facts that you think you have. I do this a lot where I work, where there is a big emphasis on math. The other day, rechecking my facts led me to discover that I misunderstood something that I thought I knew.

Until recently I thought that every non-terminating decimal was an irrational number. For example, the fraction 22/7 can be expressed as 3.14285714285714… But it turns out that that decimal is a rational number. An irrational number, in contrast, cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers. Pi is probably the best known example of an irrational number. Unlike rational numbers, whose non-terminating decimals ultimately begin to repeat (notice how 285714 repeats in the decimal expression of 22/7), the non-terminating decimals of irrational numbers never repeat.

Here are the first 50 decimals of Pi. You will not find a repeating pattern, no matter how far you expand the sequence:


So every irrational number is a non-terminating decimal, but not every non-terminating decimal is an irrational number. This example might strike you as esoteric, but I provide it to make an important point: do not believe everything you think! As technical communicators, we should continually examine our assumptions and preconceptions.
After we hunt down the facts, we need to stand by them, no matter the pressure to do otherwise.

Hunting down the facts also means that we must be open to new information and ideas. Some of those new ideas might be counterintuitive. Here is another esoteric example from math. Is .999999…, which is another non-terminating decimal, less than or equal to 1?

Intuitively it’s less than 1. Right?

Our intuition is wrong. Here is proof:

1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 1

1/3 = .33333….

Ergo .33333… + .33333… + .33333… = 1

But .33333… + .33333… + .33333… also = .99999…

This is not simply a matter of rounding up. The real number .99999… followed by an infinite series of 9s is exactly equal to 1. Get your head around that idea and pretty soon you might find that there are an infinite number of other counterintuitive facts for you to discover. Seek them out!

Standing by the Facts

After we hunt down the facts, we need to stand by them, no matter the pressure to do otherwise. If we are told that the product that we document behaves one way and we discover it to behave in another, we need to communicate the true behavior and deal with the difference accordingly. If it means confronting a reviewer, we need to face up to the confrontation. If it means a new partnership with testers, we should embrace the opportunity.

We need to distinguish between fact and opinion, and strenuously avoid inserting opinion into everything we produce. Are you ever asked to put intensifiers into your technical prose, such as “Massive Dynamic Widgets 3.0 is one of the most powerful toolsets available to analyze the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Is “most powerful” a fact, and if so, by whose standards? Is there some way to more objectively communicate the power of that toolset? Would it be better for your reader to provide more facts about the various aspects of the air-speed of the swallow?

Serving as an Honest Broker of Information

Underlying this quest for facts and the commitment to them is a willingness to serve as an honest broker of information. As we do our job, we maintain no commitment to a specific viewpoint, other than what can be objectively and impartially demonstrated by empirical tests or by logic. Our pledge to those who consume the information that we create, curate, and communicate is that we have done all that we can to guarantee its technical accuracy and completeness. Whether we realize or not, this attitude is a political one. We provide knowledge, and knowledge is power. Brokering power is at the heart of politics.

Becoming Savvy Information Consumers

The political innovation to which Mackinnon refers requires the skills to critically assess all of the information that bombards us each day. We not only produce technical information, we consume it. By virtue of the care with which we hunt down the facts and stand by them, we ought to be savvy information consumers. Every foray into the Internet provides an opportunity to put to work our skills at asking pointed questions. Why is this website asking me for this information? Where is the fact that I am viewing this webcast, or playing this video fragment, or navigating to this site, or reading this article being recorded and processed? How is that data being used? Who is using it? We should persistently ask until we get answers.

As honest brokers of information, we are obliged to challenge occurrences of dishonesty in cyberspace. Rather than submit, we must speak up. We can be confident in our position, sticking to the facts, because we have checked and rechecked them. Though we remain open to new ideas, we are closed to anything less than searching for the truth. It’s what we do.

Michael Harvey can be reached at michael dot harvey at sas dot com. End of article.

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