A look at the past to see the future of technical writing

Out of pure coincidence, I stumbled across this blog post about Technical writing in 2049 by Fabrizio Ferri Benedetti as I reviewed some examples of my earliest technical writing. I thought this might be a good opportunity to reflect on the past to see into the future.

My oldest artifact of technical writing that I authored is a technical manual for a central patient monitoring system I built for a hospital in 1981. The oldest technical manual I could find in my library is an Air Force training manual from 1952. I’ve kept some other relics of technical writing, but most are still in boxes.

Fabrizio’s blog post ends with this line, “What do you think tech writing will look like in 2049? I’d love to hear your predictions!” With my historical artifacts in hand, I accept his challenge and offer this response.

While I can only imagine what I thought about the future in years past, I can use these artifacts as examples of where technical writing has been and where it might go. I can also use them to describe how hard it is to predict the effects of a technical disruption, except by saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Tech comm 1999

25 years ago, we still mostly printed the tech docs in books, as we had done in the decades that preceded, although online documentation was clearly about to make its debut. For a short while, CDs replaced printed docs but soon after, tech docs were almost exclusively served online. Could I have imagined online docs in 1999? Probably, without too much imagination. After all, we already had AltaVista.

To look at the past, present, and the future of technical writing, I think it’s best to tease that apart into content, production, and use or audience.

I’ll leave out stakeholders, because I haven’t seen that change much since content went online and the business model for technical writing all but disappeared. That’s a conversation for another article.

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