Writing or Dialogue?

Subject: Writing or Dialogue?
From: "Steven J. Owens" <puff -at- NETCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 18 Nov 1998 22:01:02 -0800

In the thread on certification (hopefully the last post on the topic),
Elna Tymes writes:

> It is my belief that what we call technical writing today will
> become a relic as we move toward other forms of communication,
> probably involving networks and possibly involving more direct
> information transfer. At all points along that way, however, there
> will be a real need for the 'translators' which technical writers
> are - translating technical concepts into material that mere mortals
> can come to understand.

This raises an interesting thought which I've thunk in the past
(and revisited just yesterday, which is why I'm posting this message).
Hearkening back to the Railroad companies which went extinct because
they didn't realize they were in the freight transportation business,
not in the railroad business...

What we do as technical writers is essentially take a body of
information and make it accessible to others by a) writing it in
english and b) putting it in structured form. As such, one
fundamental part of our job is learning about new topics; yet another
is questioning our own assumptions and trying to think from our users'
point of view; finally the last is building an informational struture
(usually static and printed, more and more these days interactive and

Leave aside the first two parts, I've often wondered, lately,
about profoundly new ways of building an informational structure to
convey knowledge. Perhaps the future, in some ways, is going back to
the past, building storytellers instead of books. In a certain sense,
a technical document is designed to be used non-linearly. To a
certain extent you could consider this a dialogue. What other forms
might the dialogue take?

For example, imagine a natural-language interface to a help
system. I've coded some fairly abbreviated interactive help systems
in various online forms; not truly natural-language parsers, but more
able to respond to a narrow array of predictably phrased requests for
help. Imagine a system that carries out an informational conversation
with the user. The technology to really do this isn't that far away.

Or perhaps an expert system - I remember reading in the late
eighties about conclusions that expert systems, while not the best
devices to actually carry out complex tasks, were useful to train
inexperienced personnel at the task; by using the expert system
while learning, the user masters the topic.

I'll never lose my love of the english language, and
passive/static information will always play a role in technical
communication, but nor will I allow my love of writing to blind me to
better ways to inform and educate people.

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- netcom -dot- com

From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000=

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