Writing as IT

Ok, so this is something completely different. Instead of the usual joshness, I’ve invited my friend Bill (and my former professor at RPI) to guest post because he’s writing a really cool book and wants to get feedback on some early parts of it. Before I show you the content, however, let me set the stage a bit…

Last week, in part 4 of my discussion with Luke Wroblewski, the topic of writing and design came up. I compared writing to design, because I think there are striking similarities between the two: they each involve the selection and organization of content for effective communication of ideas. I was discussing this later with Bill, and he shared with me an even more extreme idea. Now, if there’s one thing that I know about Bill, it’s that there’s a lot more to his writing than can be gotten in an initial skimming. He’ll send me something, I’ll read it, and then weeks later I’ll realize how it got into my psyche…I’ve assimilated the thoughts almost without knowing it. So, with that, here’s a brief overview of the book he’s working on. And by the way, solid, enlightening feedback is mandatory… :)

Ok, so this is something completely different. Instead of the usual joshness, I’ve invited my friend Bill (and my former professor at RPI) to guest post because he’s writing a really cool book and wants to get feedback on some early parts of it. Before I show you the content, however, let me set the stage a bit…

Last week, in part 4 of my discussion with Luke Wroblewski, the topic of writing and design came up. I compared writing to design, because I think there are striking similarities between the two: they each involve the selection and organization of content for effective communication of ideas. I was discussing this later with Bill, and he shared with me an even more extreme idea. Now, if there’s one thing that I know about Bill, it’s that there’s a lot more to his writing than can be gotten in an initial skimming. He’ll send me something, I’ll read it, and then weeks later I’ll realize how it got into my psyche…I’ve assimilated the thoughts almost without knowing it. So, with that, here’s a brief overview of the book he’s working on. And by the way, solid, enlightening feedback is mandatory… :)

the following is a book excerpt by Bill Hart-Davidson

Writing as IT

Writing is information technology. This deceptively simple statement serves as both the central claim of and motivation for a book I am working on that is an attempt to demonstrate a kind of inquiry for creating useful and usable information systems grounded in and based upon the study of writing. And I begin with the assumption that the connection between studying writing and creating useful and usable information systems is quite tenuous for most folks who would call themselves “writing specialists” of one sort or another as well as those who have a stake in the design of information systems .

So where was I? Oh yes, Writing is IT. For some readers, the statement is counterintuitive. These readers might say “no, information technology is mathematics.” And I would not immediately disagree. Digital technologies, in particular, are fundamentally mathematical in that the information is ultimately represented using numbers and the powerful manipulations of information we can perform in digital environments all depend on computation . But for most users of information technology, the digital, computational nature of the information they work with is all but invisible in the day-to-day tasks they do. And, more importantly, in the goals, hopes, and even the pragmatic activities and tasks that users engage information technology to accomplish, computation is conspicuously absent, even actively avoided. Through information technology, computation provides a medium for augmenting our ability to create and use information (Dourish, 2001). Writing, it turns out, does this too.

But just as computing is not what people want to do or think of themselves as doing with their computers, neither is writing. In fact, that writing is going on at all where information technologies are concerned is likely to be all but invisible to most users. This, then, is the reason I want to assert that “Writing is IT”, the thing that information systems attempt to leverage the power of in order to be valuable to users. To put it another way, writing makes information systems work – the basic technique of making a mark on a surface using a systematic encoding scheme is central to computing architectures, to network architectures, and on a day-to-day use level, to most of the work that folks do in the context of information systems. Unlike computation, writing rises to the very top of our consciousness as users of information technology quite often, even if it quickly goes away once our task is done. What is it we do at our computers and over our networks? We write. And/or we do things that invoke our computers, our hardware, and our applications to write.

A Disciplinary View of Writing…

Putting aside for a moment the fact that claiming “disciplinary” views of writing exist at all is, in my own field, controversial, here is a very simple rendering of the difference between a disciplinary view of writing and a more conventional view, held by someone who doesn’t define their work in life as the study of writing . Traditional views of writing assume writers and readers are engaged in a special kind of conversation, one where the text stands in for one or more absent participants. My view of writing, on the other hand, assumes that writing is a medium, and that people are more often users of texts (as opposed to participants in a conversation); writing is not the focus of the action, but a powerful context for action.

In my book, I am trying to frame a view of writing that suggests that those of us who are “writing geeks” and those of us who are “computer geeks” have something in common. Consider the folks behind Google. Their search engine can provide users with fantastic search results precisely because of a relevance algorithm that focuses on “writing” as a social phenomenon, namely how many people make links between a concept, a keyword, or a name. Google folks get my disciplinary view of writing. And a lot of other people do too. Trouble is, they don’t call it writing or recognize it to be an act thereof. Thus is that nature of disciplinary views of all sorts. What non-physicists call “matter” and what physicists call matter tend to be different things, especially when the conversation is one physicist talking to another one.

This view of writing is, potentially, dangerous when we throw in our assumptions about what it means to be “literate.” Who can read and write? The view of writing described above calls for us to recognize “literacy” not as an ability to communicate well in writing, but rather as a kind of record of concrete “events” in the lived experience of people communicating. Such a view even suggests a theoretical and ethical stance for researchers from a variety of disciplines who would contribute to the development of information systems: inquiry dedicated to the proposition that all literacy events are created equal. The “literate” can link? can blog? can view and edit an aggregated transaction history that they contribute to (that is, a text that they co-author) by swiping their discount card at the grocery store? Aren’t those the conditions for literacy in the information age?

Published: September 25th, 2006

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