We started a fascinating conversation on TechWhirl, both the magazine and the email discussion list, with last week’s poll question. Respondents are almost evenly split on whether wearable computers will change tech comm. Based on the responses, and the commentary, we’ve attempted to extend the question. In a way, wearable computers are merely a new iteration of a concept first discussed 25 years ago—ubiquitous computing. In one of his comments on the initial question, Mark Baker referenced the concept, and it’s worth exploring as we try to determine the how the technical communication field will, or should, evolve. Indeed, when we look at what ubiquitous computing (aka pervasive computing, ambient computing, or haptic computing), it becomes clear that the question is not whether it will change tech comm, but rather how is ubiquitous computing changing tech comm.
Noted sociologist Manuel Castells posited in that the Internet marks the introduction of pervasive computing, and that as it evolves, pervasive computing is marked by three layers: 1) task management; 2) environment management; and 3) environment. Most of us own a myriad of smart devices that perform task management from mobile phones, to remote car locks, to e-readers and more. Smart buildings, mobile banking, and home security command centers manage all sorts of environmental factors. And GPS, RFID, and other technologies illustrate how closely linked we are with the environment. Nearly every appliance with a power source also has a processor, and in that regard, computing is already ubiquitous.
Mark noted in his initial comment “The revolution is in the network, not the devices. Tech comm is becoming a network activity. The real challenge is not to adapt to different screen sizes, but to adapt to working in the network. The network is an always-on world. Are we ready for always on tech comm?” Others noted that the work would not fundamentally change until the employer asks for content created to support wearable computing.
Early in my career, I documented software for a mainframe emulator, and writing procedures for complex business applications hasn’t really changed all that much. But as Windows and the Internet advanced, so did the ways we thought about software, how to produce it and how to get users to work with it. Many technical writers started adding user interface design to their repertoires. Beyond the software world, many technical writers never dealt with “click and drag,” but putting together tech specs on increasingly powerful processors, and laser equipment has changed a lot as well.
How do the layers of ubiquitous computing affect us? More technical writing/content creation opportunities? Less end-user support documents and more product development documentation? More focus on planning and strategy? Additional content creation duties that are less technically oriented? More visual design, and less content formatting? Will we finally get to the end state of “no user manual needed”?
Chris Despopoulos responded later “OTOH, I don’t anticipate an end to text as an interface medium. The power of compressing human thought and experience into a small set of symbols that can be mixed according to (relatively) simple rules is just too great to live without. It brought us this far, and isn’t going away any time soon. So yes, we will still be writing, and people will still be reading.”
Think about the ways your job has already changed, and will change, and give us your thoughts, either here in the comments, or over on the email discussion list (or both if you’re hankering to really chat this up). Did we miss any areas? Will it really not change? Of course you have to read the poll to vote, so Chris is actually right.