Evolution, Design, and Information Development

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Bill Hackos, Comtech Services

Recently, I’ve been very interested in the process of natural selection and evolution and the controversy between natural selection and intelligent design. First, I’d like to say that I am strongly on the side of natural selection. However, the controversy has shed light on the issue of how design is accomplished.

In 1802, William Paley initiated the arguments in favor of intelligent design with his famous figurative walk along a heath. He argued that if you see a rock lying on the heath, it is clear that it was a simple object that was created with no evidence of a design. However, if you keep walking and see a watch on the heath, with all of its complexities and its specific purpose, you know that it was created by an intelligent designer. He continued his argument to the human eye which is much more complex than a watch. The human eye with its great complexity and its specific purpose must also have been created by an intelligent being. The controversy over evolution versus intelligent design began from there.

I’ve been involved with technology most of my working career. I strongly disagree with Paley’s interpretation, not only of the development of the human eye, but also with the development of the watch, and for that matter, any scientific or technological advance.

An example I like to use is the development of flight. In August 2004, I wrote a book review in the Best Practices Newsletter of Mark Eppler’s The Wright Way, a book on the Wright brothers’ development of the airplane. What stands out in this historical account is that, although the Wright brothers made the first controlled flight, they could not have done so without a vast amount of research, trial and error efforts, and a history of flying attempts going all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci.

When the Wright brothers decided to develop the airplane, their first activity was to learn what everyone else had already done with flight. They contacted the Smithsonian Institute and asked for everything they had concerning flight. They digested this information and then built a wind tunnel to experiment with the optimal cross-sectional wing shape for flight. They observed soaring hawks in flight to understand how hawks controlled themselves. They studied how bicycle riders bank as they go into a turn. Because the Wright brothers studied so carefully the successes and failures of others before them and because they carried out tedious engineering research, they were successful in making the first controlled flight.

It would be accurate to say that the Wright brothers were the final contributors to a long list of controlled flight contributors rather than its inventors. If they had not been successful, someone else would have developed controlled flight within a short time. The story of the Wright brothers is repeated over and over with other technological advances.

I am concerned that so many technical writing managers today are trying to design their information sets in a vacuum without being aware of the technology around them and without understanding the needs of their users. Like the Wright brothers, we should make ourselves aware of what everyone in the field is doing and build on their innovations to design our manuals as well as the processes we use to develop manuals. We have many venues available to us. We have dozens of conferences that we can use to network with colleagues and learn about the innovations they are investigating. Hundreds of recent books are available. We have workshop opportunities, academic programs, local organizations like STC chapters, the Bay Area Project Managers Forum, as well as international organizations like CIDM, OASIS, and STC. Unfortunately, most publications managers are not members of any of these organizations.

Next time you set out to design an information set, remember that there exists a vast history of information design already in place. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

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