Navigating the Changing Waters of Technical Communication


In the chapter, “Information Design,” Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski draw repeatedly on the concept of “metis,” an ancient Greek term that refers to navigating change. The metaphor struck home for me. My family had a sailboat when I was in middle school, and I still take advantage of the chance to go sailing with others when it comes along. My wife and I had a great time on an evening charter sail in Bayfield, Wisconsin in October, and I took a turn steering for a while. I had to keep a number of factors in mind to navigate safely between the mainland and Madeline Island. There was the unchanging, but invisible hazard of the water depth. I had to follow our captain’s guidance and the feedback of the depth finder to avoid running aground. I had to be mindful of moving obstacles, such as other boats. And I had to be mindful of where the wind was blowing, so that I would not get trapped too close to a shoreline without enough sailing room to tack my way back out to safe water.

As I read the chapter, I thought that sailing was a good analogy for navigating the changing conditions of technical communication. There are obstacles we know about, like the depth of the water in a bay, which change slowly, and there are unexpected changes that happen more quickly, with less warning, such as the direction of the wind and movement of other boats.

The chapter includes a description of a futuristic, but not hard-to-imagine scenario. A father enters the word “broccoli” into a search engine. The search engine takes into account not only the word, but the searcher’s context: what room of the house he is in (the kitchen), what time it is, and what time the family usually eats dinner. The search engine determines that the searcher is looking for a recipe containing broccoli that can be made in an hour or less.

We currently use and allow some of these context-based tools. I will search “restaurants near me” in a new city, and let my phone tell the search engine exactly where I am. I know from the ads that pop up on my Facebook page that Facebook knows I occasionally search for clothes, kayaks, and musical instruments. But as developers are working to take marketing advantage of more and more of this data, and context-based results can be very useful, some of us are getting uncomfortable with the notion that somebody knows where we are and what we’re searching, reading, and buying. A previous borrower of my Digital Literacy for Technical Communication textbook wrote “****ing creepy!” in the margin of this section. Just like we are now able to mostly shut telemarketers out of our lives by signing up for no-call lists, many people will likely block access to personal data, and new rules are making it easier to do so.

This article from outlines Europe’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These rules will require any companies doing online business in Europe (regardless of where the company is located) to ask consent every time a piece of personal data is used; just allowing a user to opt out now and again won’t be enough. Companies also will need to provide users with a way to access and change their preferences at any time.

Continuing with the sailing/navigating reference, developers have been sailing toward an ideal to providing a personalized experience to users. Now they will need to sail around the obstacle of much stricter privacy rules.

Technical communicators will also need to make course changes career-wise to survive


The author

changing conditions. In the chapter, “Content Management,” William Hart-Davidson points out many changes to how communication work is accomplished, including the automation of some writing tasks. A few years ago, as a working journalist already watching the job market shrink dramatically, I was alarmed to learn that online news outlets were employing news-writing bots to create content. This is not limited to news aggregators and gossip and click-bait sites, but includes, as noted in this article in Wired, serious news organizations such as the Washington Post and Reuters.

Who knows where the wind will blow next? Our employers and our own careers will be best served if we learn to be navigators, ready to plot a new course when needed.


Posted on November 4, 2017, in Marketing, Social Media, Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Dan,

    It’s interesting that you brought up GDPR because I just had a conversation about that at work yesterday. We will have to change our system to allow this viewing and deletion of any related content for a user. The effects of this on our system will be extreme to say the least. I can’t imagine the development efforts will be any less than 6 months. The biggest confusion from our perspective is what is your data and what is ours? Can we just blank out your personal information but still keep the data that someone used our system? We also have no concept of a profile for a user so this has to be created from the bottom up. I can see this being very problematic for companies. Chip and Pin, for example, was something many companies had to integrate with, but many did not have the money to actually develop this so they just faced the consequences of losing liability in the case of credit card fraud.

  2. Awesome post, Dan. I love the nautical analogy and the accompanying images. You really tied the readings together nicely.

    Also, thank you for sharing the Wired article about news-reporting bots. I had no idea, but I am not surprised. Media company executives will do anything to save a buck. And for the record, I am a part of the small audience that is interested in the 4th district of Iowa race even though my hometown is in the considerably more liberal eastern part of Iowa. It was nice to see Steve mad the national news without doing something provocative. For example, here he is building a border wall on the House floor in 2006.

    I agree most of us know how to block companies from accessing our data, but I am sure many people won’t pay close enough attention to turn off location services, etc. I think Uber recently updated, but for a while, I had to go into my phone preferences to change Uber’s location services from always on to off when I wasn’t using the app. It’s nice to see Europe is taking steps to protect people’s privacy. I doubt the U.S. will adopt anything similar because it could hurt business.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    Jennifer R.

    • I agree. I feel this week everyone has taken a more visual and hyperlinked turn which has made all of the posts more dynamic!

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