SCHEMA Blog (EN)

Corporate blog of SCHEMA GmbH

Rhetoric for Hypertexts – 20 Years After

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Before reading this article, please print it out and sit down in a room without internet
access!

If you enter the German search items “rhetorik” and “hypertext” in Google the first hit
will be my article in the tekom news of 1993 with the title “Rhetorik für Hypertexte?”
(Rhetoric for Hypertexts?) (Download possible under: http://bit.ly/SPni8E).

20 years ago — as all readers should remember — web browsers and the use of the
internet were for the most part still unknown. What kind of use is it actually? For
“digital natives” today hypertext is something which has “always” been there. How
can it be otherwise: Everything is linked: websites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc.
“One click” and ‘I am someplace else’.

Simplified there is not much more behind the hypertext idea: Information modules are
connected with each other via links. What does this have to do with rhetoric? And in
which way is all this connected to technical documentation?

The word “rhetoric” often has a boring connotation and may be a bit old-fashioned
but it shows that “the endeavor to communicate appropriately with a respective target
group based on comprehensible and teachable methods” is much older than
‘technical documentation’. And today certainly nobody will deny any more that the
new media changed our reading habits. So when technical communication – in this
sense – represents one form of rhetorical endeavor and hypertext is ubiquitous, all
this is certainly connected with each other. At least somehow …

I almost would have said “Let me have a quick look at what I can find on it on the
web” … but no: this article is meant to be a form of meditation! I force myself not to
carry out a “search” right now or ‘to have a quick look in the web’. Just writing the text
by one’s own strength of mind (whatever that may be?!). You — as reader — are in
the advantageous position to either go on reading or throwing it in the wastepaper
basket. That is something at least. No links can be clicked to divert or distract you.
(Did you really print the article?)

The temptation to follow the link is strong: Maybe I will find ‘there’ what I have been
looking for? Of course it is always better ‘elsewhere’. ‘There’ might be more food and
sunshine. The link satisfies almost Stone Age needs, the never-ending search for
information. Man as the truffle pig for information.

And who keeps on going down the same road all the time will no longer be able to
turn onto a less shallow road. Does the addiction to clicking make us superficial in
what we read and are able to take in?

Or put differently — with regard to technical documentation: In court could an expert
attack a documentation for safety reasons as the text contains too many, too few or
the wrong links? Links that too easily ‘diverted’ the reader or just did not ‘help him
on’? Is this conceivable?

If yes, in addition to ‘modularization’ also ‘linking’ should be taught properly. If yes,
then we need systems that significantly support the bidirectional creation of links with
typed links and along with it ‘rhetoric for hypertexts’. Regarding the second point I
have contributed my share during the last 20 years, regarding the first the university
lecturers are called for.

Suppose two information units A and B are linked with the semantics “can be
followed by”. Meaning “A – can be followed by – B”. So the technical writer must make it clear
for the reader whether the link seen ‘from the viewpoint B’ means that “A – possible
before” or “A – necessary before”.

If this theory is retranslated to the above mentioned fictitious safety-relevant context,
then the bad expert could in my opinion very well argue that it was not clear ‘whether
this information belongs there’ or ‘how exactly it belongs there’ and that therefore a
person died.

A missing cross reference or just the semantically too unclear cross reference like
e.g. “also refer to” might possibly not be enough.
There are others who have had the same train of thought. The “Guidelines on
Requirements to Safety Specifications for Nuclear Power Plants” (http://bit.ly/Q4l3tD)
say:

“…in addition to the operating manual the approving authority will be presented with a
complete clearly arranged list of all details ranking among the safety specifications
including all necessary cross references to the respective chapters of the
operating manual.”

“Cross references” are not just simple randomly scattered, semantically retarded,
unidirectional “also refer to” references. But at best didactically reasoned,
methodically created, bidirectional semantically comprehensive and unique
connections between information units.

Granted: that is not the case in the internet. There everything is only connected
‘somehow’. That is the bad thing about it. But a documentation is not the internet. It
should be structured according to a certain schema…

Well: You may now leave the room… 😀

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