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Doing More with Less: Tools and Strategies in Communication

By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

Technical communication has always been about the stuff of technology and how humans put digital technology to work. Past studies have identified the human activity of using technology as “a productive state that is truly reasoned” (Miller 1989). This distinction was first made by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Sidestepping the question of ethical behavior (persons using technology for the good), the idea of persons using technology for the practical has a long tradition in STC’s Technical Communication journal, Technical Communication Quarterly, and in various book chapters. Current ideas about the technique and materials of communication and work (screens, connectivity, community building, content curation) begin to look to alternative ways of viewing the objects we use. Maybe by following the reasoning used in the material culture of hunter-gatherers, we can finally do more with less.

Ideas about communication materials frame our interaction with technology, not in terms of material objects, but in terms of performance, poetics, and storytelling. How can this be? Robin Ridington explains how in “Dogs, Snares, and Cartridge Belts” in The Social Dynamics of Technology (1999.) The article comments on ways people use thinking, itself, as a technology. Ridington ponders just how much “stuff” (artifacts) we need (or don’t need) to do our work. More interestingly, the question becomes how our stuff is embedded in what Ridington calls a “thoughtful social artifice.” A thoughtful social artifice would be something like an organization or a group. How much stuff, including computer manuals, do we need to accumulate and use in order to create the organizations, groups, communities, teams, relationships, networks, and other social structures of our lives? Does our information repository clog our thinking?

For technical communicators, that last question might be rephrased in this way: How much information do we have to artfully provide for our readers so that those readers can enact a satisfying experience in their work or occupational setting? Consider that by producing text, content, lists, stories, etc., we are adding to the ever-accumulating repertoire of instruments and tools. If Ridington is right, there is a range, or better, a ratio of accumulated tools to strategic outcomes. Now we ask: how much stuff do we need to accomplish what task? Could it be that less is more?

Thinking About Less

The concept of “less” has a long pedigree in thinking about tools and strategies in communication (Carroll 1998). Lest we forget, the academic community has long grappled with what are the bare minimum of words—and other word-based structural and content-wrangling elements—needed for our readers to get the job done. Thus, within the nexus of “less is more” vs. “more is more,” it might be instructive to follow Ridington’s reasoning processes: what’s really going on when we ponder the information content of our communication artifacts?

Ridington begins with a premise that the cultural message—the significance of cultural-embedded action—is constituted not by the physical product but in the stylized rendering of it. In doing so, the author distinguishes between the product (i.e., spreadsheet or document) and the enactment of culture, the—“thinking shaped by culture”—that someone, some maker, had to enact in the making. For Ridington, this premise leads to the next idea, which is that technology is behavior.

If we accept the idea that, as Ridington asserts, both industrial and non-industrial economies use artifice (e.g., chop sticks) as a means of interacting with the environment (e.g., lunch), then where are we? Knowledge and performance involve strategies in all realms. But here is a key difference: the amount of “stuff” needed to get the job done varies tremendously. Consider that the survivalist with an axe has a lot less to handle than the student, the attorney, or the teacher, thinking just in terms of the sheer volume of tools at their disposal. For some, “less is more” means a simpler object but, as Ridington points out, not simpler thinking. Thinking is where technology use becomes complex.

In fact, Ridington even suggests that thinking in stories, narratives, procedures, and processes—all the stuff of technical communication—becomes more complex when the tools themselves become simplified. In this regard, we might wonder if “less is more” means less tool, more headache. The key to unraveling this mystery has to do with how we see the relationship of our readers—technology “thinker/users”—to their goals of social and cultural effectiveness. For most software and hardware users, wrangling the tool in a thoughtful way means that they know, respect, and understand the cultural constraints that shape their work. Like hunter-gatherers, to use an example Ridington uses, they respect the animals they have to work with, even give them souls. In the realm of technical communication, this giving of being-ness, autonomy, or soulfulness to the material environment constitutes the productive relationship that we all seek. It is the goal of technical communication.

But there is more. If we can accept material and culture-embedded performance as the components of the productive application of technology, what’s next? How can the material (information products) most efficiently facilitate the social, cultural, and workplace significance that we all crave? To answer that question, we need to examine a notion called “strategic complexity.” Ask yourself, “Is the complexity of an artifact simply in the number of interlocking parts (topics, concepts, systems) it has, or in the strategic complexity of how the artifact is used?”

Strategic Complexity

To illustrate the definition of strategic complexity, Ridington turns to the artifact of the story, or narrative in general. Strategic complexity is a type of cognitive measure of how people use social skills in response to environmental challenges. Consider a child trying to reach a forbidden cookie. Boxes, pillows, and pets might come to mind as possible technologies for boosting a small body closer to the jar. How much more complex, however, are the social skills being used? Thinking in adult terms, how much more complex is the thinking behind initiatives (projects, enterprises, proposals, evaluations, and so on) than the paper they are drawn out on? The thinking—culturally sensitive reasoning and observing—going on here dwarfs the copper wire or keyboard through which, or on which, the culturally embedded practice occurs.

One way to view tools, then, is not in terms of how complex their working parts are, but how much strategic complexity they engender. The more the task resides in the mind of the user, the less of the task has to be facilitated by materials (like help systems or user forums). This might be good news for technical communicators, always trying to make the most of their 26 basic tools.

In closing, reflect on what axioms lie behind the less-is-more approach to technological depictions.

  • Axiom # 1: Technology is more in the thinking than in the object.
  • Axiom # 2: The thinking about objects is more complex than the objects themselves.
  • Axiom # 3: Technology is a system of relations with fellow humans.

We are all culturally-bound citizens, community members, workers, family members. As such, the vastness of thinking—processes, norms, values, ethics—deserves attention. These instances of strategic complexity reflect our problem-solving, our health, our identity. It’s comforting—and a little unsettling—to think that computers are less complex than the societies in which they are put to use, but it may just be the case that less—less institutionalized, systemized knowledge—is more. We sift through and try to understand our products, and although cultural complexity may not be reflected or embodied in a particular artifact, it is relevant to the understanding of it.

Resources

Carroll, John M. Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1998.

Ridington, Robin. “Dogs, Snares, and Cartridge Belts: The Poetics of a Northern Athapaskan Narrative Technology.” The Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views, 42.2:167–185, 1999.

Miller, Carolyn R. “What’s Practical about Technical Writing.” Technical Writing: Theory and Practice, 14–24, 1989.

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