OBSOLETE? I THINK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!

Going Obsolete

Of the technologies that have become extinct in your lifetime, which do you miss most?


I was declared obsolete about 6 years ago. I had been getting progressively less relevant for quite a while, but after the dot coms went down in flames, the high-tech world changed dramatically. Venture capital disappeared and with it, the exciting start-up companies which had been my bread and butter.

Technical writers were replaced by automated systems. No one cared whether or not documentation produced by the software was in any way useful. Tech support had been exported. Now the same thinking applied to documentation.

I — and it — was declared unnecessary. You could just call tech support. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected and finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will give them wrong or worse information. Don’t provide a call back number to make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs writers?

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A lot has gone wrong. Too late for me, companies are discovering that customers who buy expensive gear want manuals too. They get cranky when a $5000 camera arrives without a book to explain how it works.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer … novels … literature. I wrote books, but only one novel. Everything else was information or instructions. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra, I picked up a lot along the way.

I was an editor at Doubleday in the mid 1970s, the halcyon days of publishing. We read manuscripts. Everyone read books and books were important. No one had 1000 channels on TV. Depending on your antenna was, you might not get much of anything except snow.

When I moved to Israel in 1979, I discovered the only kind of writing done in English (not Hebrew), was technical writing. I moved from typewriters to computers and found my milieu. I became part of the development team for DB-1, the first relational database. It revolutionized the information world … and with the creation of data object linking, the guts of the Internet we all take for granted today, was born.

I rode the high-tech wave until I became officially obsolete having been informed that “no one reads manuals.” Which is why I can’t figure out how to change the ISO setting on my camera. I can’t locate the menu. The manual, no doubt produced by a piece of software, doesn’t explain anything. I hope someday I’ll find the setting. But I digress …

I designed my downfall as I worked on “artificial intelligence” systems. The technology evolved fast and came of age in the 2000s. It replaced many people — including me.

This is the world I helped build so how can I complain? But honestly? I miss me.



Categories: Computers, Customer Service, Software, Technology, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

35 replies

  1. I like to read the manual before I use the new whatever-it-is. It really annoys me that there is normally just a ‘getting started’ sheet of paper for me to read nowadays. Just does not explain anything properly. I miss you too.

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    • It’s really frustrating getting a new camera and not knowing what menus have what information, or even what the abbreviations on the menus actually MEAN. It’s gibberish and those cheat sheets they include are useless. So yeah, we both miss me 🙂

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  2. How I miss my tech manuals! Downloaded to my computer or available in THE CLOUD will never match a book in hand for me. 🙂

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    • I totally agree. Especially for portability. You take a manual WITH you. You don’t need electricity or a WiFi hookup to use it. But as far as The Bosses are concerned, no one reads or uses manuals.They are wrong.

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  3. I studied Technical Writing too.
    I was to assist in writing a manual on Touch Screen Monitors for the Computerized Sports Systems Group at the University of Calgary.
    I think there’s some irony in there … but I’ve never quite been able to decipher it.

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    • Yes, there was a time when manuals were a standard part of a product. A lot of people were employed in producing them — writers, artists, researchers. We’re all unemployed now. That’s supposed to be progress.

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  4. I miss the ‘yous’ (or is that you’s) of the world too. I’m not a cell phone adopter, and I don’t have internet access 24/7. All I want is a tidy little manual that I can pop into my pocket for those times when the cryptic little icons on my camera don’t make a lot of sense to me!

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  5. What irritates me most is when there is an itty bitty “manual” and on it they print, “visit http://www.blahblah.com” to download full user manual. I mean, seriously? Who doesn’t want the effing manual?

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  6. Hi Marilyn,
    Google a fellow called Aaron Swartz. They made a documentary about the young fellow. I think he has many answers we are looking for.
    Leslie

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  7. I really wanted a manual with my new camera. I suppose I could download some instructions from the internet, but why should I have to do that?

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  8. Having been in the software testing business (and Chris still is) software documentation literally doesn’t exist anymore. I used to write tech manuals for the companies I worked with. They were no nonsense and easy to follow. It simply doesn’t exist anymore. Your career may not exist, but you sure do exist.

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    • Yes, I exist. But my career vanished while I was still sitting in front of the computer. I think failing to create at least good internal documentation is a BIG mistake. There will eventually be a huge payment due. Each time someone leaves a company, if his/her work isn’t documented, everything he/she knows that no one else knows, goes with him/her. I’ve seen it. Panic in high tech halls!

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  9. Technical documentation is still very much in use on the back end, for internal teams on projects.
    When I have a problem like your camera, I’ll go to the internet and google it. Someone else will have had the same thing, and more importantly, posted a solution.
    Crowd source!

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  10. Wow, this is heavy. Just before retirement we got a new dept. Manager who, if it wasn’t for his smart phone and computers, would be totally lost. I still used paper for many things until I discovered “I WAS OBSOLETE.” The only get even was when the computers crash and takes your data with it. Then is when I say “HA!”.., wanna borry my pencil young feller?

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    • Yes, we humans have been “replaced” but the replacements aren’t nearly as good as we are/were. A bit late and in any case, no way I’m going back to work, but I smile with evil glee when people complain that there are NO MANUALS with the computer/camera/DVR etc. Ha! Well, that’s the world now. I TOO have a pencil!!

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      • Yeah, if you want a real manual you have to go “online” and download it. They’re locking us in.., or out, depending on how you look at it or are willing to bend to the will of “The Computer Age”.

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        • Mainly, they are saving a few bucks on paper and a writer. But I could see the trend even back in the early 1990s. They were already trying to “automate” documentation … with the results we see.

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  11. As you mentioned, companies certainly are realizing their mistake. Tech writers are in demand again, and all the manuals are now online (.pdf format), which is where I find everything I need to know about anything I purchase.

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    • A little late for me, but it’s good at least some technology will come with a book. I noticed the indemand-ness. I’ve actually been getting feelers from people who find my old resumes online. Nope. I’m really retired. A few years ago, might have given it a minute or two of thought, but I couldn’t handle the workload or stress … and I don’t want to, either. They can work it out for themselves. But I was VERY good 🙂

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      • Judging from your informal blogs, I betcha kicked ass formally (I haven’t read your book yet).

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        • I wrote really excellent manuals for hardware and software, from basic user level to advanced developers. I was one of the first in the field and did my share of inventing the medium. Sadly, tech writers were always considered a “frill.” Always the last hired, first fired and lowest paid member of a team, we were thus also the first eliminated. I didn’t know how to write junk — and I was on the high end of the pay scale — so I was an obvious “first to go.” Turns out, my boss’s son needed a job. Never mind he couldn’t write. What did that have to do with it?

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          • Same thing happened to me when I was building databases. Once they’re built, it takes nothing maintain them, right? Ha! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to come back and fix something someone broke (one time the owner’s son) because they knew nothing about what’s under the hood.

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Trackbacks

  1. Daily Prompt: Going Obsolete – Why not? | Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss
  2. DAILY PROMPT: Going Obsolete | Nola Roots, Texas Heart

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