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Signs of progress
by Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Signs of progress. Intercom April:36.
Critics claim there's been little progress in the past decade, and that what we're doing today is no different from what we used to do. As a technological optimist, I disagree. Here are some symptoms that the lives of technical communicators have improved, both quantitatively and qualitatively:
- Acronyms: Years of research have demonstrated the value of reducing word counts. In this age of TMI (too much information), even the IT (in trouble*) department is getting more ROI (return on investment) from their TLAs (three-letter acronyms), FAQs (frequently asked questions), and PnPs (policies and procedures). The research has "left the lab" to improve our quality of life; the industry–academy collaboration is here to stay.
* Thanks to Benoît Bisson for correcting my misapprehension that IT meant "information technology".
- Icons: Gone are the days of painstakingly memorized shortcuts and command lines. Cryptic yet tantalizing phrases such as "grep the file before tar'ing it" have become icons—in this case, the image that resembles a squashed spider, but with only seven legs and no clear cephalothorax. The visual communication revolution has arrived! (See: Markup languages)
- Jargon: Careful word choice is the hallmark of the skilled communicator, and now we have a more powerful repertoire of jargon than at any time in the history of the written word. Sure, the words aren't in the dictionary, but to those who understand, they communicate faster and more precisely than any alternative. (See: Icons)
- Localization: The world grows smaller, and the tyranny of the English language is waning. Until Mandarin takes over as the new standard for international communication, we can embrace the joys of multilingualism and test our carefully honed skills in a host of languages that use these skills in intriguingly different ways. (See also: Outsourcing)
- Markup languages: With visual design tools, there's no need to master hundreds of cryptic textual commands to create a simple Web page. Instead, we can master only dozens of cryptic CSS tags to build those same Web pages. (See: Icons, Web pages)
- Mergers: In the bad old days, programs cooperated poorly because each company used cunning proprietary formats and command structures to avoid “look and feel” lawsuits. This meant rewiring your fingers every time you switched programs and spending hours learning to transfer data between programs—not to mention all that time wasted deciding which program to use (the "paradox of choice"). Microsoft's domination of the operating system market and Adobe's of the publishing market have sharply decreased our choices—meaning more compatibility, and less time wasted choosing. When Microsoft finally purchases Adobe, compatibility problems should finally vanish.
- Outsourcing: North Americans have long been criticized as too provincial, but the rise of outsourcing has forced us to confront a world of diversity. Sure, our jobs are being exported—but the advantage of the knowledge industry is how much less greenhouse-effect gases are produced when we export information rather than products.
- Web pages: I still remember the excitement of downloading my first Web page using a (then) state-of-the-art 14.4K modem. Now, DSL and cable modems let us transfer more information than ever before, at much faster rates—enough so that modern Web pages load almost as fast as they used to with that 14.4K modem. Real soon now, the growth in download speeds will finally surpass the growth in Web page size. (See: Markup languages)
- Word processors: Early word processors did only one thing well: they let you type and modify words. Some might argue that this is the primary task performed by communicators, but fortunately, marketing managers are too wise to fall for that notion. The modern word processor, a marvel of software engineering, underlines words faster than we can type in increasingly obtrusive ways to reveal spelling and grammar errors. Now, rather than just writing and leaving the mess for the editor to fix, we’re urged to stop after each word and build quality into our writing right from the start.
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