Category Archives: philosophy

Heart of documentation

Documentation answers all the big questions of life: How did I get here? What’s it all about? How do I do it? What’s next?

This leads to the inescapable conclusion that documentation is at the centre of the life, the universe and everything.

Even if all it says is: ‘Wrong way — go back’.

Wiki ‘way back when’

The Odyssey began life as a wiki page.

While that statement is (probably) not true, it’s something I’d like to explore a bit. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written in the eighth century BCE by a Greek bard called Homer. Actually, instead of saying ‘written’, I should say ‘written down’. Because those two books are a collection of stories passed down verbally from bard to bard through the centuries, as a way of retaining the history and philosophy of the loosely-associated groups of people we now call Greeks.

Each bard would learn the stories from another bard. The stories came with standardised chunks of words, to make them easier to remember, plus gaps and opportunities for the new bard to add his own improvisations and improvements. It was a way of storing and continually refining the people’s intellectual property.

That’s kind of what a wiki does.

Then Homer, or someone else with the same name ;) came along and wrote it all down. Suddenly the stories were stuck in a fixed medium. Homer probably got a bit of bad press for that. I’d guess the other bards felt excluded.

SocratesThose ancient Greeks were wise dudes. A few centuries after Homer, Socrates happened along. He was totally opposed to writing things down, because it led to a shallow conception of the truth. But I like to think he’d have made an exception for wikis. Socrates spent his time talking to people, showing them that they knew nothing at all, and persuading them to search for the truth by endless discussion. Every now and then, he’d stop talking and go into a bit of a trance. They say he was a very ugly dude. Yet everyone had great affection and respect for him – well, except for the people who made him swallow poison. And now, two and a half thousand years later, we still know his name.

So, in Socrates’ view, discussion is the best way to get at the final product, or the truth, or at least your best stab at the truth. You keep thinking about it, talking about it, and refining it until the real thing becomes self-evident. A wiki would have helped. Maybe he’d even have avoided death by hemlock, if everyone had been able to see and comment on his philosophy and that of his opponents.

Socrates and Confucius were around at more or less the same time. Confucius, like Socrates, believed that discussion is the best way to arrive at the truth. (OK, so Confucius wasn’t Greek, but he is ancient.) They never met. Would a wiki have brought them together? Imagine how different the world would be now. Hmmm, Microsoft might never have been thought of.

Democracy took off in Greece around the fifth century BCE. Any eloquent man could have his say in the Assembly. (Women and slaves were excluded, but hey, it was a while ago now.) You didn’t have to be a nobleman to get your voice heard. A wiki is a bit like that too. On a corporate wiki, anyone can put up their opinions, theories and ideas. And if they do it well, they may get more readers than the CEO. A wiki is a great leveller.

So what about the present day – what comes to mind when I think of Greek people? Corner cafés, with people talking and gesturing over good coffee and baclava. Planning, proposing and refining concepts. That’s a good image for a wiki.

Some dates and things:

  • Homer, about the 8th century BCE, Greek bard credited with writing the Iliad and the Odyssey and other poems (though some people say there was no such person).
  • Confucius, about 551-479 BCE, Chinese philosopher and teacher.
  • Socrates, about 469–399 BCE, Greek philosopher and teacher. Plato was his pupil, and wrote down much of what he said. I guess Plato would have liked a wiki too.
  • BCE = before the common era. The common era started in the year 1. We are now in the year 2007. So 800 BCE is about 2800 years ago.
  • OK, so Confucius and Socrates may not have been around at exactly the same time. But I think we’re probably not precise with these dates. Anyway, allow me a bit of artistic licence here.

The Plinking Buddha

Buddha Yesterday the chubby two-foot-high Buddha in our living room started plinking. Every five minutes or so, we’d hear this gentle, unassuming ‘plink’ from his quiet corner. Closer investigation revealed that the ceiling has developed a slow leak directly over the Buddha’s right arm. We’ll have to fix it some time, but no worries. It only happens when it rains.

Inevitably, this experience leads me to some philosophical meanderings. Why is the Buddha plinking now, at this particular moment in time? Yesterday was Friday 7 September. Could this be a gentle comment on the APEC goings-on in Sydney? A subtle, enlightened type of protest, to show up the Chasers‘ more obvious antics? Or is it pure coincidence? Do coincidences even happen?

I’m not a Buddhist. Philosophically, I’m a mix-and-match kind of girl. But one of Buddhism’s central tenets appeals to me:

At the centre of everything is nothing.

This is a strangely comforting idea. It’s worth doing a bit of meditation in search of that nothingness. It helps when waiting for the E66 that never came, or ironing clothes that are wrinkly by force of nature and destiny (ironing has to be the most futile occupation ever) or undergoing other more troublesome vagaries of life. Hey, it’s freakishly fortunate that I exist to have this experience at all. And other creatures around me are similarly amazing and lucky to have made it this far.

‘Nothing really matters to me’. You can take that two ways.

What does all this have to do with technical writing? Very little. Almost nothing, in fact. Close enough to matter.

When you’re writing a document, and you really get in the zone – that’s much like losing the self. When you surface and notice what’s going on around you with sudden clarity, that’s mindfulness. When you’ve spent hours writing glorious prose and then have to hone it down to the bare bones, that’s an exercise in humility. (Select a shoe size. Click ‘Submit’. Click ‘OK’ to confirm your selection.) When you wonder why you’re telling people how to do something so utterly unrelated to real life, that’s when it helps to know that nothing really matters. And so everything really matters.

My mum and dad have recently given me a copy of Karen Armstrong’s latest book, The great Transformation. The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah. Thanks guys! I’m looking forward to digging into it. A while ago, I read Karen Armstrong’s Buddha. I think she did a good job there, with a very hard subject.

The hero of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a technical writer. Here’s a passage from the book that stands out for me:

“What I wanted to say,” I finally get in, “is that I’ve a set of instructions at home which open up great realms for the improvement of technical writing. They begin, ‘Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.’”

A leaking roof is not the end of the world. It ain’t over when the fat Buddha pings.

Garden zen Garden zen
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