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Genres and Metaphors: Following the Roadmaps

I like genres. I like to know where the boundaries are, even if they are flexible. If you ask me to create a document, I will want to see an example. If you ask me to create something new, I will probably try to find an outside example. How long can it be? Who is the audience and what kind of language are they comfortable with? What kind of tone is appropriate? What is the typical size of the chunks of information? It may sound unadventurous to some, but I want to know what the rules are, even if it’s okay to break a few for good reason.

In the chapter, “Human + Machine Culture,” Bernadette Longo discusses Spinuzzi’s concept of genre tracing, which combines activity theory and genre theory to look not only at a particular genre, but to examine how people interact with it—a genre’s life cycle as it passes through creation and use. This was especially interesting to me, as I am constantly navigating these paths in a large and complex health care organization.

Longo’s example of electronic medical records was particularly familiar to me, as my organization converted to a new medical record system over the summer. This was a

major undertaking, as it involved not just learning new software, but new workflows. The software company worked with the organization to create workflows that would, hopefully, get the job (many jobs, actually) done most easily and effectively. This involved getting different parts of the organization (which had at one time been separate organizations of their own) to agree on a standard set of tools and processes. This involved much negotiation and consideration of not just the technology, but also the institutional culture. Who creates a record? Who needs it later? What needs to be included? Who has authority to see records? Who can change them?

In developing the workflows, designers needed to understand how the various staff members would interact not only with the software, but also with each other. As Longo points out, power differentials between those staff members can either aid or impede the workflow. If employee A needs a set of information from employee B, does employee B have the necessary authority to make sure employee A provides that information? When the direction of work and the power structure are misaligned, it can lead to conflict.

Meeting my own deadlines sometimes depends on receiving timely information from someone who is much higher on the company flowchart than I am. If that person does not consider my request important enough to respond in a timely manner, the workflow is stalled.

I was also interested in the way Longo described the use of metaphor as a bridging technique to learn new technologies. When we work with something new, we sometimes give it an old name that we recognize. Take files and folders in Windows, for example. The concept helped computer novices adapt to PC technology as home computers became commonplace in the 1990s. Metaphor helped old school radio broadcasters like me bridge the gulf from analog to digital audio equipment. When digital systems were designed to store and play songs and radio commercials, the commercial files were identified by “cart numbers.” This is because commercials were previously recorded onto rectangular cartridge tapes—carts for short—which each had a number printed on an adhesive label. With digital systems, there were no more carts, but “file number” was too big of a mental leap. Similarly, we still referred to “tape,” as in “tape an interview,” or “edit the tape,” nearly two decades after the last reel-to-reel tape recorder was removed, leaving only servers loaded with .wav files.

The two topics are related, in my mind: genres and metaphor as bridging language. The conventions of a genre help me understand the framework in which I am working. The bridging language of metaphor helps me navigate new technology using a familiar road map (another metaphor!).

Fun fact: did you know that “computer” originally referred to a person? Check it out here.

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