The Gravity of Technical Writing

Anyone who has seen the film from some time ago Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and is at least tangentially familiar with the work of a technical writer will recognize their importance to the film’s denouement.

Bullock’s character is stuck in space, the lone survivor of a misguided Russian operation to destroy their own spy satellite which causes a ricochet effect with debris progressively taking out much of the world’s stellar infrastructure, starting with Bullock’s ship and onto the international space station as well as a fictional Chinese station.

What’s on-hand for Bullock is a couple of aging Russian Soyuz escape capsules. Problem is, Bullock’s character is both essentially a space-layman, as a medical doctor, and an English speaker when the first Soyuz she commandeers has a Russian dashboard, and the second, a Chinese dashboard.

What’s more, in the first case, she must perform a complicated technical hack, tricking the system into thinking the ship is about to land, when indeed it is still very much in mid-flight, in order to take advantage of the propulsion of the landing rockets to get her where she needs to go on an otherwise empty tank of gas.

For all these reasons her only recourse is to grab for thepresumably Englishuser guides to instruct her actions while sitting in successive Soyuz’ cockpits.

This situation speaks perfectly to the role technical communicators play in a variety of ways, from interpreting and explaining how to use advanced technologies for non-specialists, to the localization of user interfaces and their explanation to someone coming into a situation from a different background, to a kind of imagineers who must divine potential situations that may occur, however improbably in the future, when a piece of technology, such as a rocket ship, leaves a neat assembly line into the messiness of the real world, or in this fictional case, the messiness out of this world.

What is not so fictional about Bullock’s hypothetical, is that technical writers are indeed a crucial player in aerospace. For example, in a book I picked up at the beginning of my technical writing career, called Ethics in Technical Communication, I read how technical writers while at least partially implicated in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, are definitely a large part of the whole operation.

What’s more, the very practice of technical writing in aerospace led at least indirectly to the Internet itself as we know it today. You see, the main language of all web browsers, HTML, was actually a small subset (since then greatly expanded, most recently in the ascendance of HTML 5) of SGML, the mother of structured writing developed originally in the 60s and 70s to use, among other crucial places, largely in aerospace to document the assembly, maintenance, and operation of planes (its own descendants in use heavily at places like Bombardier, include the S1000D standard).

As our world is increasingly mediated through technology, and until some time way out in the future where a perfect AI is always there in our head guiding the way, there will be times and places for that ol’ trusty user guide, even in a Soyuz, or two.


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