Digital Literacy for Technical Communication:  21st Century Theory and Practice – ed. Rachel Spilka

Introduction – Rachel Spilka

  • The author notes that the collection is valuable because work contexts and modes of production have changes so much over recent memory.  As technical communicators, Spilka notes that the need to adopt evolution is necessary to survive.
  • Evolution not only in technical skill, but productive flow and socializing forces are necessary to be a technical communicator now and in the near future.
  • She chooses the term “digital literacy” for the text because it “refers a bit more directly to the rise of computer techn0ology, and the introduction of computer technology” that led to the fundamental paradigm shift in tech comm.
  • Structure of book:
    • Part I:  Transformations in work due to the digital environment
    • Part II:  New Foundational Knowledge:  What knowledge is important for tech. comm. To learn in order to remain relevant?
    • Part III:  New Directions:  This section is a collection of meditations on how we might revise existing theory and develop new theory to better understand how technology has transformed our work.

Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century – Saul Carliner

  • The chapter describes the development of different communicative/publishing technologies and how that has transformed the work of technical communicators.  Specifically, the author considers a couple of time periods:
    • Late 1970s – Large systems, technical writers, field experience for education, wordsmithing tech documents is essential skill, worked on typewriters
    • Mid to Late 1980s – Mid range systems and PCs, called “information developer,” required tech comm. Experience and possible university education, prepared information for end user, used automated text processing systems that resembled HTML
    • Late 1990s to early 2000s – PCs, high-end software for commercial application, called “software engineers” and “technical writers,”  degrees in computer science and wordsmithing experience, prepared information for end user, used web-based authoring systems, desktop publishing, no coding
    • Early 2000s to now – Software for managing networks and information on networks, customization of networks, same names as previous category, required degrees and wordsmithing experience, also experience with CMSs, designing large databases is primary responsibility, used CMSs that work on DITA standards (Darwin Information Typing Architecture.
    • The author grounds the development of technology in the same period of changing technological communication above in 5 phases:
      • Automation of production tasks:  use of typewriters, and more advanced printing mechanisms
      • Desktop Revolution – Desktop publishing addressed issues of output on crappy printing, formatting of documents, and graphics
      • The GUI Revolution – development of GUI to replace text based interfaces (think DOS to Windows)
      • Web 1.0 – static web content is generated through scripting languages like HTML and PHP.  Also the development and adoption of CMSs.
      • Web 2.0 – CMS as a way to manage dynamic content, interactivity, elearning applications and creation, open source software and a strengthening of division between web designers and web coders/producers.

Chapter Two – The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work – R. Stanley Dicks

  • First, let me say that I may not agree with the article’s logic, but I LOVED this article.
  • The author considers the changing nature of tech comm. In the context of a couple of different aspects:
    • Economics – macro-changes in economic systems of distribution and production have changed the role of technical communicators.
    • Management – new management theories over the past couple of years affect the role of technical communicator in reminding management of their relevance.
    • Methodologies – the nature of “knowledge work” has changed dramatically.  These new production methods have also affected the role of the technical communicator and their respective workspace.
  • Economics – A lot of this information is covered in Spinuzzi’s explanation of changing work methods found here (see the section on Chapter Six:  Is Our Network Learning?).
    • The new movement to knowledge work is fundamentally wrapped up in a new value of customer experience and individualization.  New products will be specific to specific people, no copies will proliferate.  Mass production will die in favor of customizable products that meet multiple customer needs.
    • This is referred to as the “support economy.”  Because the customer-corporation relationship is currently poisoned, new modes of customer prioritization will appear (and are appearing).  Web 2.0 technologies are allowing instant feedback mechanisms that will force companies to care about their customer in a much increased way.
    • There are problems with this new model; most notably, because work will become a new experience each time it is performed (as opposed to production models), the knowledge worker will be left looking for new work at the completion of each individual project.  This is a precarious place to be – especially in light of insurance, etc.  Contractor agencies look like a future alternative for knowledge workers in a modular production model (Spinuzzi 2007).
  • Management Principles – These come and go; however, tech. communicators need to know how to make themselves relevant in changing management paradigms.
    • Value added – tech. communicators need to demonstrate how they add value to their company by highlighting how they can reduce costs, avoid costs, enhance revenue and by their intangible contributions.
    • Reengineering – Think Office Space.  You remember the mangament gurus that came in to evaluate how successful the company is?  That’s “reingeneering.”  It also goes by names like restructuring – Ford just did a bit of this, so did GM.  The author traces reengineering to the transition from industrial capitalism to knowledge-work capitalism or post-capitalist models of distribution and consumption.
    • To combat outsourcing, downsizing, and rightsizing, tech. communicators should make sure they are doing knowledge work and not commodity work.
    • Globalization is changing things – REALLY? – to combat this tech. communicators need to move away from commodity work toward knowledge work (no filling out forms and getting into coding/design), develop more efficient technologies of development, and understand that translation and localization are the future (other languages, relevant to small contexts).
    • Flattening – layers of management aren’t needed in post-production models.  So, remove management and let teams perform complex tasks together.  Sounds good in theory if everyone is an egalitarian!
  • Methodologies – these are the new ways that technical communicators need to engage with their work of production, deployment, and teamwork to remain relevant:
    • Single sourcing – a concept whereby individualized documentation will accompany products in the new support economy.  Databases will query small amounts of information and reassemble them per the end document designers code.  This is the future and highlights the split in workflow between documentation and presentation or writer/interface producer.
    • Agile Development Methods – These are new ways of development that put the end user in the driver’s seat with respect to development.  User-centered design, iterative design, agile development, extreme programming, and scrum all either develop criteria and develop from there (rather than via technical specifications), or use “stories” of end-users to dream new coding.  Tech. communicators need to enmesh themselves in all these processes to remain relevant and be able to fully understand what they are expected to document in a team-based work atmosphere.
    • Distributed work – because of the advance in communicative technologies and contract work, tech. communicators need to understand how to work in non co-located environments.
    • Web 2.0 – This poses an interesting question for documentation specialists.  Why not let the documentation get generated organically instead of exhaustively documenting everything?  You can do this via blogs or user wikis with support.  LOTS of companies are moving in this direction.

Chapter Three – Shaped and Shaping Tools:  The Rhetorical Nature of Technical Communication Technologies – Dave Clark

  • This chapter is about “how do technical communicators learn about and assess “broader implications” and “potential influence”?  To answer this question, the author explores what methods and technological approaches have been articulated to consider the ways that technologies structure, shape, and influence the ways we communicate.
  • The first section defines technology – or attempts to anyway.  The author wants to get away from instrumentalist (tools to an end) conception of technology.  The author also works hard to differentiate the rhetoric of technology from the rhetoric of science by noting how the rhetoric of technology is primarily concerned with human-made objects whereas the rhetoric of science often deals with “nature.”  To differentiate between the two, Clark notes:
    • Science produces mostly symbols through rhetorical means such as articles or grant proposals whereas technology aims at producing objects and material processes (but doesn’t science also?!?)
    • Scientists validate their findings by outside professionals whereas technologists protect trade secrets and let market forces determine success
    • Science has a “more closely bounded rhetorical terrain” whereas technologies must enlist the help of publics to be functional and carried through to fruition (91).
  • Focuses and Approaches to the rhetoric of technology – the author notes that four modes/methods have been used to study technology rhetorically:
    • Rhetorical analysis – a rhetorical perspective for analyzing the problems and issues raised by new technologies through an examination of public discourse.
    • Technology transfer and diffusion – a really diverse field across disciplines, this considers how technologies are transported between populations.  Interested in such things as technology adoption and practice in new contexts.
    • Genre theory – focuses on the rhetorical construction of the writing produced and encouraged by particular tools.  This deals with things like “genre ecologies” (Nardi) and Spinuzzi’s work on the role of genres in technical communication / organizational communication.
    • Activity theory – a form of analysis that can provide a broad cultural understanding because it considers common language, structure, and context in understanding organizational cause-effect relationships.

Chapter Nine – Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations:  Digital Being in the Workplace World – Steven Katz and Vicki Rhodes

  • This chapter considers how ethical frames define human-machine operations.  In so doing it asks questions about : What are the relations?  How are they shifting in digital communication?  What are some of the professional implications of the digital relationships of machines and the humans who increasingly depend and exist alongside them in all walks of life? (231).
  • Utilizing a successive framing method, the authors describe the following conceptions of technology and ethics:
    • False frame – technology isn’t valuable, it’s just a form of indulgence and entertainment.
    • Tool Frame – Technology is a means to an end – the instrumentalist approach – examples might be a calculator or a hammer.
    • Means-End frame – Technology is both a means and the end of those means.  An example might be something like a website to generate internet sales.
    • Autonomous frame – technology becomes a value system whereby means-ends relationships are conceived as operating unto themselves.  In this sense, technology produces moral codes (productivity, speed, efficiency).  “Societies whose economic goals are the accumulation of material things, wealth, and power, require and enforce the complementary ethical values of speed, productivity, and efficiency as ends as well as means”  (234).
    • Thought frame – technology as rational calculation – In this frame, technological rationality through the assistive technologies of something like Microsoft Word are important because they have become integrated into the composing process.  They are technologically embedded to a really high degree.  Examples are uses of terminology that permeates everything.
    • Being frame – this is when technological thoughts become the dominant mode of consciousness.  Modern technology becomes a way to order nature and our relation to it.  This considers humans as resources or a “standing reserve”  to be harvested.  In this process of Enframing (we only understand being in the world through technological ways – Heidegger), the personal is the technological. . . not just business.  Think of iPhones, Blackberries, Facebook, etc.  We exist everywhere with technology as technology; we stand with resources as a reserve.  Think of the department “human resources!”
  • Digital being – This is the accumulation of all frames of being.  It rationalizes the technological order and naturalizes it so that it can only increase.
  • To combat these frames, the authors argue for “human-machine sanctity” or the constitution of a new frame that encompasses all previous frames but also values the “I-Thou” technological relation as one based on reciprocity and mutual respect.  This is a reintroduction of the human to the technological.
  • “Because human-machine sanctity, ideally, would be based on non-technical relations – not on means-end, but on reverence and caring for the whole – it would directly improve relations between:  employee and employer, employee and machine (equipment), company and clients, and company and nature (conservation).

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