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Technical Communication in an Altered Technology Landscape: What Might Be.

The dominant theme in the search for new form factors and expanded roles for computing is that relations between people and their computers can be vastly improved. Computers will be easier to use and do more for us. Smart software agents residing in computers will write their own documentation, telling a highly customized story based on knowledge of user moods, learning styles, and past practices--perhaps gathering some of this information through new interfaces such as an "emotion mouse" that detects a user's state of mind. Computing will be calm, invisible, and ubiquitous. With interaction design as the crucial development principle, hardware and software products will be characterized by simplicity and elegance, usable out of the box.

At the present time, technical communicators have primary responsibilities for improving relations between people and their computers. Support products mediate between technology and often-frustrated users. If the principles of interaction design actually lead to a technology more accommodated to human learning styles, and if intelligent software agents can do for computer users what writers do now--and perhaps do it better--will there be roles for the human professionals we now call technical communicators?

It is risky to predict the 5-year horizon. Many of us remember high hopes for artificial intelligence (AI) in the mid-1980s. Much of the AI vision of stand-alone intelligent computers has now been refocused on the idea of intelligence augmentation (IA) through software agents that can act autonomously on a user's behalf. The pursuit at many development sites is cyberization: to make the represented world digital instead of analog so that it can be available anywhere, anytime.

It is not now possible to say which dreams will be accomplished, which refocused. It does seem safe to predict that in 5 years, there will still be human professionals doing the work presently done by technical communicators, though the skills required for technical communicators in the next computer revolution will change at least as much in the next 5 years as they have in the past five years. As to the dream of computer products designed for brilliance and simplicity, supported by soft ware agents so intelligent, sensitive, and responsive that technology will need no documentation from human agents: stay tuned.


Ubiquitous computing

At the beginning of the year 2001, we are already witnessing a dramatic transition to ubiquitous computing. Firefighters and paramedics wear computers. Field technicians carry the equivalent of 6,000 page manuals, accessing exactly the information needed on handheld computers, reading instructions to accomplish their work on a computer screen displayed on one lens of eyeglasses--a transitional stage leading to the time when information may be displayed directly onto the retina. Computers will be em bedded in walls, chairs, clothing. Patients will swallow computers, and doctors will notify us when something is wrong.

Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown (1997, p. 76) describe three major trends in computing (see Table 1) and predict that the crossover point to ubiquitous computing will be 2005-2020. Ubiquitous computing "offers the user a world in which everything is a medium, because everything is or contains a computing device" (Bolter and Grusin 1999, p. 217). It is intended to be so intuitive that the user interface will be invisible (Bell and Gray 1997; Ark and Selker 1999). All personal electronic devices will be seamlessly linked in a wireless bodynet that allows them to function as an integrated system and connects them to the worldwide digital network. Each of us becomes, in effect, a modular, reconfigurable, infinitely extensible cyborg (Mitchell 1995, p. 30).

The ambitious computing initiative at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science is called Project Oxygen, reflecting a goal of "abundant computation and communication as pervasive and free as air" ( In the Project Oxygen vision, computing is pervasive, embedded, nomadic, and constant. Oxygen never shuts down or reboots; users are free to move around according to their needs.

William Mark of SRI International describes the challenge of locating pervasive computing: "as computational devices become part of furniture, walls, and clothing, physical space becomes a necessary consideration. First, more than one person can occupy a space. Second, individuals within the space are doing things other than interacting with the computer." Pervasive computing will exist in "mediated" space: the space itself "understands and participates in multiperson interaction" (1999, p. 677).

Computer products better adapted to human needs

Weiser and Brown note that "The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm. If computers are every where, they had better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control" (1997, p. 79). As a result, the post-PC must be simpler to learn and better adapted to human needs (Negroponte 1995; Dertouzos 1997; Winograd 1997; Norman 1998; Cooper 1999; Carroll 2000). For true simplicity, the tool must fit the task so well that it becomes part of the task, not a separable element.

Attempts to deal with complexity by means of explanations are never going to be as successful as solutions that correct the underlying cause of the complexity. According to Negroponte,

The notion of an instruction manual is obsolete. ... The best instructor on how to use a machine is the machine itself. It knows what you are doing, what you have just done, and can even guess at what you are about to do. ... Appliances of tomorrow should come with no printed instructions whatsoever (except This Side Up). The "warranty" should be sent electronically by the appliance itself, once it feels it has been satisfactorily installed. (1995, p. 215)

New interfaces

We now have a limited number of interface devices that feed information to the computer and back to the user: keyboard, mouse, trackballs, joysticks, hand-held stylus, microphones, still and video cameras. New and improved interfaces, particularly those that interpret speech and visual gesture, will come to dominate as devices become too small to have keys and buttons. We may have head-tracking helmets, optical devices to track eye movements so the computer knows where we are looking, electronic noses, body nets, smart rooms, and haptic interfaces that combine manipulation with touch sensing (Dertouzos 1997). Neil Gershenfeld, protesting that the computer industry forces most people's interactions to go through one approved means (windows, keyboard, mouse), describes the design and construction of what looks like an ordinary table but contains electrodes, creating a weak electric field that can find the location of a hand above it. The interface is unobtrusive and responds to the smallest motions people can make as quickly as they can make them. No need to clutter the desk with a mouse; no need to look for the mouse at all since you always know where to find your hand (1999, p. 144).

The first generation of speech-based interfaces is now available, but far more advanced speech recognition systems will be required, primarily to support systems that are nothing like desktops and cannot reasonably incorporate bulky keyboards. As Victor Zue notes, speech is not only natural, but it is efficient (most people can speak about five times faster than they can type) and flexible (we do not have to touch or see anything to speak). A central goal of the MIT Oxygen Project is the "conversational interface," a machine that can take documents from the World Wide Web, find the appropriate information, and turn it into well-formed sentences. Throughout this process, the ma chine must be able to engage in a dialogue with the user so that it can clarify mistakes it might have made--for example by asking questions such as "Did you say Boston, Massachusetts, or Austin, Texas?" (Zue 1999).

Computers that know how you feel

"Affective" computing is an important goal at some development sites, including IBM and the MIT Media Lab. Computers with emotional intelligence will be able to sense the user's needs and goals (Ark and Selker 1999). As Rosalind Picard and Jack Breese framed the challenge at a Media Lab conference on computers and emotions (Picard 1999; Breese 1999; see also Picard 2000), the computer should be able to sense things about the user by practicing active and sympathetic "listening," and as a result, to take appropriate actions. Possible indicators of the user's emotional state might be typing speed, word choice, speech characteristics, or movements on a squeeze mouse. The computer will know that this particular user appears to be frustrated, and it will draw from a repertoire of actions by which it can respectfully handle the user's emotions, perhaps by adjusting the interface or making messages more engaging and relevant. In educational applications, the computer could automatically replay portions of a lecture if it sensed that the student had not paid attention the first time.

Agents: Computers acting on behalf of users

Founding MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte predicts that future human-computer relations will be rooted in delegation to agents rather than direct manipulation of the interface by users (1995, 1997). The idea is to build computer surrogates that possess a body of knowledge both about something and about you in relation to that something: your tastes, experience, preferences. Agents are independently executing programs, capable of initiating their own actions, responding appropriately to events, and communicating with other agents (see Hayzelden and others 1999; Norman 1997; Erickson 1997; Maes 1997 and 1999; Shneiderman 1997; Brown and Duguid 2000).

Intelligent agents anticipate needs and actively seek ways to support users. Agents are proactive: they don't just wait until you tell them to do something, but try to do things on your behalf and to achieve some of your goals. They will filter, extract, and present relevant information, using their detailed knowledge about the person on whose behalf they are acting. Agents will be "instructible" (Lieberman and Maulsby 1996), learning from examples and advice as they interact with the user. Pattie Maes proposes an agent that can acquire the knowledge it needs to assist its user in a variety of ways: by continually "looking over the [user's] shoulder" as the user performs actions; by interpreting direct user feedback; and by asking for advice from agents that assist other users with the same task (1997, pp. 148-151).

Negroponte contends that the agent model is distinctly different from a human factors approach to interface design. "The look and feel of the interface certainly count, but they play a minor role in comparison to intelligence" (1995, pp. 158-159). Some of this kind of "agentry" has already found its way into products like Microsoft Office 97, where a simple form of agent monitors what you are doing and (for one example) asks you if you want help when it thinks you are writing a letter.

The MIT Media Lab Web site describes many agent projects-in-progress ( agents/projects/), and interested readers can follow additional links provided in the Internet Resources section at the end of this article. For selected examples with relevance to technical communication, Walter Bender's projects include (1) information access systems that tell "stories" by extracting, comparing, and contrasting information from retrieved documents; and (2) an "augmented" text project that combines understanding of a topic with understanding of the reader's context to pro duce ancillary information that places the material in perspectives customized for that reader ( In Henry Lieberman's "Intelligent technical documentation" project, an expert interacts with a simulation of a device, and the system automatically produces both written English descriptions and visual illustrations (

Bradley Rhodes' projects include "Remembrance agents," a new class of applications that watch over a user's shoulder and suggest information relevant to the current situation. "While query-based memory aids help with direct recall, remembrance agents are an augmented associative memory. Databases and search engines answer direct questions. In contrast, remembrance agents proactively offer information you didn't know to ask about, such as 'the paper you are currently writing is related to this unread e-mail"' (http://


New roles, new skillsets

The profession of writing is not a cultural absolute but a socially constructed reality with a history of development and change (Zimmerman 1989). Our jobs will not be what they were or what they are. We will play different roles in user support and need different skills to do our work. Interaction design, an emerging philosophy of development for high-tech products, may alter the way that hardware and software products are designed and may create for technical writers new and significant roles in user support.

Terry Winograd defines interaction design as the study of principles that underlie the design of effective interactions between people and machines and among people using machines (1997, p. 159). In The Inmates are running the asylum, Alan Cooper argues for a new class of professional interaction designers who design the way software behaves by developing a precise description of users and what they wish to accomplish (1999, p. 123). Cooper identifies technical communicators as ideal candidates for these new professional roles, able to participate knowledgeably in a development process that starts with user needs and ends with engineering. In this vision, technical writers play new roles in an old game: they help to improve software and hardware usability by working on interface design teams rather than by writing manuals.

At the 47th STC Annual Conference (May 2000) in a session called "Transforming our roles: From writers of manuals to designers of the user experience," Lindsay Bennion, Lori Fisher, Lee Anne Kowalski, and Ed See argued for the power of new roles. In this model, technical communicators will have responsibility for how users will experience all information about a product--from pre-sales deliverables, to integrated user assistance such as online tutorials, to hardcopy support. They will take the largest view, identifying where user assistance is needed and how best to deliver it, ensuring cohesive presentation. As designers of the user experience, technical communicators will be creating intellectual property rather than simply documenting it. Requisite skills include DHTML, CGI, XML, C++, JavaScript, and Java. Many ambitious technical communicators are already acquiring these skills; some are teaching advanced seminars and workshops to others.

Phase transitions

Jonathan Price (1997, pp. 73-74) has developed an important phase model of changes in the field of technical communication over the last 20 years (see Table 2).

In Phase 1, individual writers produce individual documents in traditional structures. Word processing provides a way to build up an archive of electronic files and to exchange those files, but we still think primarily in terms of individual documents. The transition to hypertext makes it possible to establish links from one piece of information to another.

In Phase 2, all writers on the team create information objects that link up with each other to form a single hypertext, online. We no longer assume that a reader begins at the beginning and reads through according to a path we have set. With the transition to the Web, technical communicators are called on to put everything they have ever created on the Web, and to engage more directly than ever before in an electronic conversation.

In Phase 3, the writer must transform a library of books into a true network of information objects, offering meaningful filters and providing updates rather than waiting for users to ask for them. "The nature of the rhetorical exchange has been transformed from a distant relationship between producer and user to a rapid-fire and constant conversation in which we are tightly interconnected" (Price 1997, p. 74).


In 1834, a fire destroyed Britain's Parliament buildings. The cause of the fire was the burning of a stockpile of old tally sticks, used from the 12th to the 19th centuries to maintain tax accounts. The sticks were notched to show the amount paid and split lengthwise so that both the taxpayer and the Exchequer would have a record of payment. Although by the 17' century paper had become a cheaper and more efficient means of record keeping, the tally system remained in effect as the means of tax recording until 1826 (Craig 1999). It is difficult to change human practices just because new technologies may promise improvements. Obituaries are regularly written for practices, organizations, and institutions, not all which have faded away (see Brown and Duguid 2000, p. 3). The old and the new can and do co-exist for longer than would seem possible.

It seems safe to predict that for at least the next 5 years, technical communicators will work in all three phases that Price defined, and even those who work primarily at Phase 3 will continue to do some work at Phase 1 and Phase 2. It also seems safe to predict that technical communicators who are able to acquire advanced software knowledge will have continuing but evolving roles in enabling users in the next computer revolution because of their knowledge of the ways that people want to learn from machines. Working on interdisciplinary development teams with computer scientists and human factors specialists, technical communicators are important participants in the design of computers that install themselves and e-mail their own guarantees-and of computers that adjust their interface when they infer that the user's emotional state requires an altered presentation.

For at least 25 years, technical communicators have sounded the same concerns: documentation should not be an afterthought; we need to be involved in product design at all stages; bad products cause bad manuals; better product design reduces the need for documentation and customer support. The emerging field of interaction design may address all these concerns, and those technical communicators who can acquire the relevant software skills may be working in new job titles. Some of us will still be called technical writers just as drivers of diesel trucks are still called teamsters. But none of us will do in 5 years what we do today.


I did most of the reading for this paper in fall 1999, when I was visiting scholar in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. Professors Kenneth Manning and James Paradis extended exceptional professional courtesy for that period. Warm thanks to Milton Laden for listening to my attempts to describe the transitional states in which most technical communicators work and for providing me with the reference to the burning of the Houses of Parliament.

MURIEL ZIMMERMAN is coauthor, with James Paradis, of The MIT guide to science and engineering communication (MIT Press, 1997). She is senior lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she directs the minor in technical communication. She served as director of the UCSB writing program from 1991 to 1998 and has also taught intermittently at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1983. She is an associate fellow of STC and serves on the IEEE Professional Communication Society's Administrative Committee. Contact information:


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Introduction to agents tml lieberman.html

Links to other sites about agents[sim]agents/links/

MIT Media Lab work on agents

Ease of use

Pervasive computing

Voice recognition

Wearable computing

Mainframe          Many people share
                   one computer.
Personal Computer  One computer, one person.
Ubiquitous         Many computers share
 Computing         each of us.
Phase 1     Traditional Composition
Transition  Hypertext is Born
Phase 2     Document Developers
Transition  Enter the Web
Phase 3     The Web of Participants
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Date:May 1, 2001
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