The concept of products bundled with detailed instruction manuals is fading fast. Demand is for gadgets that are intuitive: so well designed that little or no separate instructions are needed. Or as one commenter on the topic bluntly put it “manuals are for noobs and old people.”
I am in total sympathy with this in a practical sense. Manuals are irritating speed bumps on the way to to fully engaging with the new new thing.
But a question arises: what happens in the future if someone needs to operate one of today’s devices to access information?
There are going to be some problems. Consider an experiment where a 13-year old was given a Sony Walkman in place of his iPod for a week.
“It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape,” the kid said. “That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.”
Interpretation of today’s digital information in the future is going to face two major hurdles. The first is lack of operating details: which button does what, how does the tape/disk/whatever fit into which machine and so on.
The second problem will be one of unlearning. Assumptions built on how to access current information may very well get in the way of getting at and understanding older data. Imagine if wireless power transmission becomes standard in the future. Someone trying to power on a vintage laptop may have a tough time: 1) understanding that it needs to be “plugged in,” and 2) figuring out that it needs something so irrational as a “proprietary power supply.”
This gets to what digital preservation nerds refer to as “representation information.” In a nutshell, this is everything a user needs to know to understand the information stored within a digital object. Such as how to read a particular file format. Since information technology changes over time, future use depends on knowing precisely how to decode a specific file, Rosetta stone style.
Even if we do a great job in keeping this information about information how do we know what higher level knowledge that will be obscured over time? Preservationists look to assumed “representation networks” to keep track of what amounts to a massively recursive set of instructional manuals, such as how a web browser functioned, how it worked with Windows XP, how to power up a personal computer and on and on. When thinking about the daunting series of steps here, and how each one is entirely dependent on figuring out the preceding step, it is easy to imagine future problems. The prospect of trouble grows stronger still if we don’t create instructional information in the first place.
This isn’t a new worry. The U.S. Department of Energy is in engaged in “the monumental task of warning future generations” about digging into a nuclear waste dump. The challenge is to warn humanity over 10,000 years. Presumably during that time a lot will change: language, culture and not least of all, memory. Some combination of ominous monuments, messages and pictures are planned. The winning entry in an art competition for a site marker was the concept of “a cobalt blue avatar” of the yucca cactus planted to form “a local, self-replicating system.”
The semiotic effectiveness of these ideas is open to debate. But the debate itself is only necessary because there is some probability that, at some point in the future, much of today’s digital information will be hard to access and understand.
Note: I originally published a version this post in 2009.