Most people reading this blog occupy some place in the “information
economy,” and many worry whether they can maintain that place during a
period of dizzying change. I’ve been dealing with information-economy
stress by looking at the differences between the professional books
I’m used to editing and the wide range of free documentation one finds
online; we’re coming up on the fourth anniversary of my
first article on the topic.
Two distinct types of learning have emerged from my observations of
how people use documentation. If you already know a utility or
language and simply want to add a function, you can usually find the
essential information online. A short example with some explanation of
context usually suffices.
On the other hand, if you want to learn a new tool or language from
scratch, you need a more comprehensive guide that’s probably more
professionally written. You can no longer tuck a new feature into your
existing ways of thinking; you need to make a paradigm shift.
What trips up many computer users is that they don’t realize how often
this kind of paradigm shift is required when using familiar tools a
new way. Paradigm shifts are frequently beneficial when scaling up,
In the article I mentioned earlier, I identified two areas that
require a comprehensive way of thinking, and therefore a potential
paradigm shift: security and performance. Program design is another
such skill. I noted in the article
How to Help Mailing Lists Help Readers (Results of Recent Data Analysis)
that many people ask questions on mailing lists and then disappear
when others try to help them; I speculated that this is because they
realized they didn’t have the background to accomplish their tasks and
could not go through the necessary personal transformation using just
the help given on the list.
The best and most valuable computer documentation–like the most
valuable education, journalism, or art–challenges our assumptions and
leads to a paradigm shift. I believe that the difference between
incremental learning and learning that challenges assumptions will
increasingly define the difference between tasks for which people can
find adequate help from volunteer documentation and tasks for which
they seek professional documentation.
Several years ago an open source advocate offered me a view of
historical development that maps onto my two-tier definition of
documentation. So far as I know, the advocate never wrote up the view,
so I’ll try to summarize it here as best I understand it.
We have all learned a narrative about the history of economics that
goes rather crudely like this: for most of human history, economic
surplus could be derived from agriculture, and great feudal estates
could be built on it. Then during the Industrial Revolution,
agriculture became commoditized and value moved to
manufacturing. After that, value moved to information.
Furthermore, to remain profitable, each stage of economic growth had
to adopt techniques from later stages: agriculture had to become more
like manufacturing, and then both had to adopt information-rich
But the Information Age was surprisingly short. In an age of
Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights
from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically),
and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what
has replaced information as the source of value?
The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a
good return on investment require some rule-breaking–some challenge
to assumptions, some paradigm shift–everyone looks for experts who
can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current
practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.
At a recent gathering where I aired this view, Seth Johnson of Open
Book Software Publishing–who specializes in information quality
management, and is an occasional advocate with the group New Yorkers
for Fair Use–pointed out that there are many levels and dimensions to
information’s value. For instance, information may be valuable to
particular people because it’s timely, or because a particular
enterprise produces more complete and accurate information than
competing sources of information, or because it has the attributes and
design necessary for a particular purpose. So the suggestion that you
can’t build a business on information is exaggerated.
The suggestion all this speculation holds for computer documentation
is that the online medium can become a much more powerful educational
force, and can help bring expert help to far greater groups of people
all over the globe. Current mailing lists and forums are not set up
for the intense, sustained interaction that allow for challenging
assumptions and creating paradigm shifts.
But a combination of technological support and user commitment could
promote more online learning. We should have rich media that allow
people to differentiate themselves through avatars or other
indications of personality, and technologies for forums that mix the
immediacy of chat with spaces for posting and manipulating
files. Culture change is also required: experts have to be willing to
guide a new user step by step during explorations of a problem, and
the new users have to take correction in good humor.
Finally, I am convinced that professionally written and professionally
edited documentation will maintain its usefulness. A text, as English
professors have long said, is one half of a conversation, and the
reader provides the other half. (Famous texts become the focus of a
multi-reader conversation that can continue for thousands of years,
but that’s another issue.) So a learner who can engage with a text as
well as with a human trainer has a chance to benefit from a very
concentrated form of expertise.