Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reading :: Digital Literacy for Technical Communication

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice
Edited by Rachel Spilka

When I was in high school, I'd spend some of my yard work money on classic rock albums. But I wasn't exactly swimming in money, so I'd try to buy albums strategically. After all, plenty of albums have one or two hit songs, but the rest of the tracks were unremarkable at best and filler at worst. So as an austerity measure, I limited myself to albums that had at least three songs I recognized and liked. Led Zeppelin IV?Dark Side of the Moon? Sure, buy. American Pie? Nope.

I have more money now, but less time, so I find myself doing similar calculations. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I prefer single-author books to edited collections: they tend to be more coherent and vary less in quality. But then again, sometimes a good author and a good topic make it worth picking up the collection. That's the case with Rachel Spilka's new collection, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication - at least if you're interested in technical communication. This book addresses the question of how the field of technical communication is changing due to the influx of new digital technologies and how our theories and practices must continue developing to keep up. And I'm happy to report that it has some solid chapters.

Let's look at some of these. First up is Saul Carliner's "Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century." Carliner traces changes in technical communicators' work at a large (unnamed) computer manufacturer that has traditionally employed large numbers of technical communicators (p.22). And although Carliner discusses these changes in detail, you'll want to keep your finger on p.22 and turn to pp.24-25, where Carliner examines four stages - late 1970s, mid-to-late 1980s, late 1990s-early 2000s, and early 2000s-now - in terms of primary products, titles, qualifications, primary job responsibilities, and primary means of production. The bottom line is that technical communication has changed radically across all these dimensions. Carliner concludes that in this latest stage, "those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities" due partly to offshoring and content management systems (p.44). Carliner smartly draws implications for work processes, information reuse, and academic programs (pp.45-47).

Along the same lines, R. Stanley Dicks' chapter "The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work" describes "the rapid and intense increase in digital literacy" as pushing causing a "seismic shift" in technical communication (p.51). Dicks emphasizes corresponding changes in management philosophy, related to economics, management, and methodologies (p.52). In terms of economics, Dicks reviews the shift toward knowledge work, drawing on Reich (and Johnson-Eilola's work referencing Reich) (p.53), then moving to a summary of Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy (p.55-59). In terms of management, Dicks identifies ways for communicators to show management how they add value: through cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, and intangible contributions (p.61). Finally, in terms of methodologies, Dicks discusses relatively new practices such as single-sourcing, agile development methods, user-centered design, iterative design, extreme programming, scrum, distributed work, and web 2.0 (pp.68-75). Dicks wraps up by discussing education that can address these emerging aspects of technical communication.

Dave Clark's "Shaped and Shaping Tools" examines technical communication technologies in rhetorical terms. As Clark points out, the rhetoric of technology is ill-defined, and we need a solid definition in order to better understand how technical communicators work with their tools rhetorically. Arguing strongly that the rhetoric of technology is not the rhetoric of science (pp.89-90), he draws on Dorothy Winsor's work to make that case, then proceeds to examine how tech comm scholars have conducted rhetoric-of-technology studies (pp.91-92). Clark tackles these under four (nonexhaustive) headings: rhetorical analysis; technology transfer and diffusion; genre theory; and activity theory. Clark concludes by emphasizing what the approaches share: "Understanding [technologies'] contexts is critical to developing a deeper understanding of technologies that can lead to their more effective use" (p.100).

William Hart-Davidson's "Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing" focuses on a specific area that Carliner and Dicks both mentioned (and that Clark has addressed in other publications). The chapter is well done, but turn to the table on p.136 for an overview of "technical communicators' expanding roles and responsibilities in the context of an organization's content strategy" (p.136). Think of this table as an exploded view of the last column in Carliner's table, a detailed view of aspects of Dicks' chapter, and to some extent a rhetorical understanding of technology along the lines introduced in Clark's chapter. Nice work here.

Other chapters are also worthwhile. Just to name-check two: Bernadette Longo's "Human + Machine Culture" attempts to draw connections between activity theory and cultural theory, while Barry Thatcher's "Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures" examines how digital technologies complicate intercultural communication.

Bottom line? I'm not sure Digital Literacy for Technical Communication is a Led Zeppelin IV, but it's no one-hit wonder either. It has some solid and surprisingly integrated pieces that represent smart thinking about how technical communication is developing. If you're interested in tech comm, I'd definitely recommend picking it up.


Bill said...

I think Rachel had Back in Black in mind when she put together the collection. With Dave Clark as Angus Young.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

That gives me an idea about what Dave should wear to his next conference.

lala said...
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