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A millennial paradigm for documentation: the scroll!

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. A millennial paradigm for documentation: the scroll! http://www.techwr-l.com/techwhirl/magazine/humor/scrolls.html

With the new millennium now upon us (for the mathematically correct) or already arrived (for the rest of us), it’s a great opportunity to revisit our current paradigms and reevaluate the assumptions we’ve lived by during the past millennium. Sometimes we can learn from the past, even if the lesson is only that we’ve been doing things the wrong way all those years. For technical communicators, the obvious place to start our introspection is the state of the art in printed documentation: the printed book. Although some zealots have proposed eliminating printed information entirely in favor of online help systems, Adobe Acrobat files, and even e-books, discarding printed books may prove less effective than simply modernizing them.

Books in general—and user manuals in particular—represent the culmination of millennia of evolution in communications technology. Back when this communication thing first began, words were cheap and easy to produce, since anyone could generate a reasonable facsimile of speech with little skill and even less thought. That condition hasn’t changed much, really—witness commercial television, for example. But words flung into the air are lost to posterity, even for those of us who own VCRs and tape recorders, and communicators seeking immortality have always sought to preserve their words and disseminate them farther than their voices could carry. This goal required a measure of innovation and specialization, since preserving words requires more training and sophistication than the far simpler act of speaking them aloud.

Tree bark and various vegetable fibers, two early solutions, proved difficult to write on and didn’t last very long, even compared with the short lifespans of those early authors. Cave walls proved considerably easier to work with and far more durable, witness the newfound popularity of paintings in the Lascaux caverns and other primitive sites (http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en/). However, these stone paintings posed other problems, such as trying to find a cave uninhabited by early critics such as cave bears, sabertooths, and their ilk. (And isn’t it unfortunate how little the art of literary criticism has changed over the millennia?)

The invention of modern papers largely solved the problem of ease of use, and when bound in book form, paper gave us a near-perfect paradigm for presenting information—a paradigm with only one drawback, namely the difficulty of revising something printed in largely indelible ink. Despite this minor quibble, books nonetheless have overwhelming advantages over other means of preserving words, including:

Sadly, as with so many other highly evolved things, books ceased changing in response to the changing world, and like those complacent dinosaurs we hear so much about, face extinction as a result. Readers enchanted by the Web no longer read—they surf. But those of us who love the feel of paper in our hands can take heart, for all is not yet lost! Technical communicators have always adapted to new technological trends, and can do so once again. So how can we preserve the aforementioned advantages of paper while bringing books reluctantly into the new millennium? By returning to an older paradigm: the scroll!

Just as evolution sometimes runs backwards with salutary results, as in the case of the ancestors of the whales returning to the sea to avoid the crowds on the beach, we too can revisit our own past. Scrolls are the logical successors to books because:

There are, of course, disadvantages to overcome with the change to the new medium:

Given that scrolls have not benefitted from the centuries of development that books have undergone, it’s unfair to prematurely criticize the new format. In fact, I predict that once we embrace the new paradigm, scrolls should replace books within a very short time indeed—at least in Internet terms, and isn’t that our standard of measurement nowadays? As any manager will cheerfully admit, sometimes it’s necessary to “retreat” before you can advance, and scrolls may be yet another proof of this truism.


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