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The Curator Docent
2010, Q1 (December 20, 2010)
By Michael Harvey, Associate Fellow, Carolina Chapter

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
The physicist John Mauchly experienced an epiphany in the early 1940s, the effect of which would reach into the 21st century: if electronic circuits (as in a Geiger counter) could count (particles), then those same circuits could do arithmetic. If circuits could do arithmetic, they could solve difference equations. If that was true, you could replace a group of clerks who were using desk calculators to crank out tables of numbers with an electronic computer doing the same work. 1

Shortly after his epiphany, Mauchly teamed with the electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert to invent the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. We are all familiar with advances in computer technology since then. As computers advanced, they replaced more than rooms full of clerks. Now, computer programs are “trainable,” revising themselves as they iterate through problems. Well-trained systems can perform tasks far more sophisticated than cranking out tables of numbers, which has meant that fewer human beings need to be hired to perform those tasks. For example, these days most of us can successfully deal with the service departments of health providers, financial institutions, and booking operations without ever speaking to a human being.

It does not take a lot of imagination to envision a time when much of the content now created by technical writers is instead generated by well-trained computer systems. We already use software to perform simple tasks such as checking the spelling, grammar, and style of a document. Sophisticated software is available to identify opportunities to reuse content and ensure consistent terminology across “the information supply chain.” How long before a well-trained program can transform a sparse, internal technical specification into a clean, customer-facing reference page? Is it far-fetched to imagine subject-matter experts completing machine-generated forms in order to produce marketing material, abstracts, or journal articles?

We recognize how these advances can help companies reduce expenses. In a recent New York Times article, Peter Goodman quotes a research economist pointing out that “American business is about maximizing shareholder value. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them” (emphasis added). 2

By focusing on the services that we provide rather than on the products that we deliver, we are less likely to be replaced by intelligent machines.
What can technical communicators do in the face of this trend? One encouraging thing about our profession is that our jobs have always required us to respond effectively to change. We have to respond to last-minute changes to technical drafts. We must take tools changes in stride. We learn to embrace changes in technology and in the way that we communicate with each other. Armed with this resilience to rapid change, we need only identify our true value-add and consistently deliver it to avoid obsolescence.

What is our value-add? It is less product and more service. That is, as we continue to produce content, we need to focus on managing it and communicating its significance. Managing content is the job of a curator. More specifically, a curator is “one who manages or oversees, as the administrative director of a …collection or a library.” Communicating the significance of content is the job of a docent. A docent is “a knowledgeable guide.” Numerous articles have been written about content management systems, specifications, and tools. The emphasis here will be on simple, practical steps that we as technical communicators can take to blend the roles of curator and docent and apply them to our jobs.

Today's information consumers do not want to pay for content. We go to Google, Google Books, and Dictionary.com for free content. We go to Wikipedia to contribute and share content. When computers produce content at minimal expense (or volunteers produce it for nothing) and customers do not want to pay for it, the only premium will be in helping customers navigate and understand it.

Large enterprises generate a lot of content and place value on its effective management. For example, the U.S. government has a web site, WebContent.gov, to provide “a practical guide to help you manage your agency’s website. Everything you need to know as a web content manager is here…” Among the tips that it provides is to “focus on top tasks,” that is, “any action that a large number of people need to complete online,” and “is essential for people to accomplish quickly and easily.” Another tip is to “keep content current.” Tips such as these were at one time on the cutting edge. Now they are table stakes.

To move beyond table stakes, technical communications need to think of ways of managing content to make it more readily available and usable by its intended audience. We could start by categorizing technical content with a combination of audience characteristics:
  • Non-technical audiences
  • Technical audiences
  • Those who are willing to take the time to process the information
  • Those who do not have the time, inclination, or patience with the information
  • Those who are performing specific tasks with a product
  • Those who are installing or configuring a product

Such a categorization affects how we write material as well as manage it and explain its significance. Non-technical audiences usually require technical content explained in concrete, everyday terms. They require more context. Technical audiences, on the other hand, can tolerate abstract content that is specific to their field. They appreciate context just as much as the non-technical audiences, but need less of it. Some audiences are willing to take time to process information, while others are in a hurry to get specific tasks done. Being able to create, organize, and deliver the right content for the right audience becomes very valuable as the amount of information increases. Hence, the US government builds a web site to provide tips to agency web masters to “make U.S. government websites the most citizen-focused and visitor-friendly in the world.”

To communicate the significance of content as a docent would, we need to understand it; and understanding requires technical expertise. However, we need to cultivate technical curiosity in addition to expertise. Someone with highly technical skills in Interleaf used to command a premium fee in the marketplace. This is no longer true. Technology becomes obsolete; therefore, we cannot build our careers on technical expertise alone. Make your career an example of how you can become a technical expert in anything in a short time. Show how your mastering one subject gives you the skills to master the next one. A drive to understand the technical details of how anything works should inform your work and be evident in your resume.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Technical communicators will survive in a way that the array of clerks slowly cranking out tables of numbers with desk calculators did not. It is the nature of our job to respond to change. By focusing on the services that we provide rather than on the products that we deliver, we are less likely to be replaced by intelligent machines. Indeed, we likely will be hired to train them.

1. Metropolis, N. “The Beginning of the Monte Carlo Method.” Los Alamos Science, 1987
2. Goodman, Peter S. “Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs.” The New York Times, February 20, 2010.

Michael can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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