What Business Are We In?
Reflections on the Changing Nature of Information Developers
and the Role of the STC
By Hans Fenstermacher
The upcoming 50th anniversary of the STC in 2003 is an appropriate time for us all to reflect on the role of information developers and the STC itself. The anniversary is all the more poignant because Boston is a founding chapter of the Society, so our chapter has been through the formation of the organization and the explosion of the information age from the very beginning.
You donít have to study the history of technical writing to see that the nature of information has changed in the last decades. Products have changed, so naturally what we write about them is different now, too. The biggest thing driving this change is probably technology itself, which, as Lord Solly Zuckerman once said, has its own imperative: "If it can be done, it must be done." Product development seems to be following this imperative, so the products we use have more and more functions and features simply because it was possible to add them.
Information development, too, has adopted the technological imperative. Given the new media and tools we have to produce content, we seem to be driven to include more and more information simply because we can. Is this good for the users? Probably not. We are all participating in the creation of a situation where usersí capacity, patience, and time to use products and consume information about them is dwindling fast. (When was the last time you hung around for more than a few seconds on a Web site that didnít give you what you wanted?)
Technology has carried us technical communicators across the threshold of the 21st century like a giddy bride. Have we been too eager to embrace the technological imperative? Have we too readily believed in the shiny beads and shallow flattery that technology offers us? Is ours a marriage of convenience or a shotgun wedding? (Have I taken this analogy too far?). Either way, information development has become an integral part of the information age (naturally), and weíre in the thick of it.
Many say that our profession and its practitioners have been too slow to change their views and develop new habits and approaches for this new world. Others insist that people (users) are still people and that they can only process one piece of information at a time and in traditional ways: reading, listening, and so on. Both perspectives are right in their own way. And this is where the Society for Technical Communication can play a major role. The STC can and should embrace new technologies and information delivery approaches with vigor. It should also view these with a healthy dose of skepticism. At the same time, it must be careful to retain the value of its history and knowledge and build on its practitionersí strength and experience. Thereís a lot of merit in the new and the innovative, but thereís also a lot of value in the tried and true.
Where does the STC go from here? Thatís hard to say, but, from my perspective, two factors will build in momentum as the information age inexorably advances. We will have to do more with less; resources, budgets, time, and many other factors are diminishing, not increasing. We are information developers, so logic dictates that we are in the business of writing informationthe more, the better. Ironically, the way to do more may, in fact, lie in doing less. The world wants less content and better content. Delivering more content not only is increasingly undesirable, but it will soon become downright impossible. To deliver less, but better, content, weíll have to be self-critical (especially within the STC!) to reappraise how we do what we do.
The second factor to reckon with is globalization. Comforting as it may be to regard G11N* as a "trend," it is a fact of life, and itís here to stay. The rest of the worldís markets (users) are growing much faster than our domestic, English-speaking one, and Americaís corporate leaders are intensely aware of that. We must embrace information delivery in all languages as our responsibility and tear down the wall over which we metaphorically throw our content for localization. Weand the STC should be central to this effortmust learn to understand how the words we write every day ultimately affect the user experience in Bordeaux and Beijing. Make no mistake, they are directly connected and will be more so in the future.
Itís an exciting time for the STC and all of us. Hopefully, like the giddy bride, weíll eventually settle down to a comfortable partnership with technology, and the STC can continue to serve as a familiar friend along this path.
As this is my last Presidentís Message, Iíd like to the opportunity to tell you what a pleasure and privilege is has been to serve as President of the STC Boston Chapter this year. Iím glad to have met so many of you along the way, and I look forward to continued interaction with both members and nonmembers. If you continue to support the chapter as you have this year, we will surely be able to do great things together!
* G11N is an abbreviation for Globalization: G followed by 11 letters followed by N.
Hans Fenstermacher () is president of the Boston Chapter STC. In his day job, he is president and founder of ArchiText Inc., a provider of localization and globalization services.