Thursday, February 10, 2005

Moving to handbooks

My first preproposal for a dissertation topic didn't go over all that well. I'll admit that it contained some major gaps and displayed symptoms of multiple personality disorder (see endnotes). Instead of throwing the whole thing out, I'm going to focus on the first part of the preproposal and expand the premise. In so doing, I'm hacking out a number of things: information behaviour as a professional enterprise, empirical research, validation, and pattern languages. Instead, I'm going theoretical and historical.

The premise of my proposal is that we should develop new understandings of information and documentation. From this perspective, I'm adopting a documentalist approach. In general, recent work in this oevre has called for greater attention to the materiality and situatedness of information. In some ways, this approach has much in common with the information behaviour research inspired by workplace studies. The main difference, however, is the necessity of materiality. Information is no longer taken to be a some sort of mythical thing created by the whims and visions of somewhat mythologized "users." Instead, information is the just the stuff of documentation and it's the materiality of the artefact that becomes paramount.

To explore the materiality of documentation I intend to focus on two particular aspects. The first is the nature of the document itself i.e., the container of the information. Instead of exploring documents that have only fleeting significance to individuals, I want to explore those documents that are "ready-t0-hand": those things that we don't necessarily think about using and that are ingrained into our daily practices. While there are any number of such documents, my particular interest is in professional--specifically technical--practices so I think I will focus on handbooks. A handbook such as Architectural Graphic Standards sits on the corner of a professionals desk and becomes wrent through usage. Handbooks like AGS get consumed through usage as they become more than just reference works. Instead, they are like cognitive prosthetics.

Okay, I made a lot of assumptions and leading statements in that last paragraph but the point is straight forward: to understand the materiality of documentation in daily practice, focus on those documents that are used daily.

The second aspect of study is the nature of the markings that actually embody and transmit the information. In some ways we have reified text to this kind of uber-status. Victorian notions of the value of literacy, reading, and writing distort our understanding of information. Perhaps we feel that we have a symbiotic relationship with writing, that writing has made us what we are. My intention is to use a different sort inscription. While different genres of writing have become ensconced in various professional communities (i.e., the legal community or the medical community) the roots of these writing genres are somewhat vague. In comparison, technical drawing and technical illustration as used by engineers and architects have very clear roots in the 15th and 16th centuries.

My goal then, is to focus on handbooks as documents. And to focus on technical graphics as the markings within those documents.

A caveat--while my intention is to focus on technical graphics, research has demonstrated that these graphics generally occur with text. Although graphics will be my primary focus, it is essential to recognize their relationship with text.

Now that I've limited my focus to handbooks and technical illustration, I need to figure out how to explore the concept of materiality in this context. My instinct--not yet scholarly opinion--is to use a method borrowed from the sociology of science and technology, preferably (from my perspective) a micro approach, something like Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) or the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). The both provide very valuable frameworks for studying technology while being conscience of the traps of technological determinism. They both also identify a number of vectors of approach. SCOT is particularly robust in this manner and resonates with Darnton's work on the history of the book i.e., the importance of interpretive communities.

Both of these approaches--ANT and SCOT--also explicitly call for an analysis of modes of production. With ANT, the actants involved in production are essential for an important piece of the social puzzle. Similarly, the producers of technology are one of the crucial interpretive communities... I'm going to have to spend some more time figuring out these details. Regardless, moving towards a materiality of documentation requires some appreciation for the material culture of documentation and necessarily calls up questions of mode of production.

I suppose what I want to do is narrow my topic to a particular area or arena of focus. One structuring trope may be to use technology of production. An interesting approach, for example, may be to explore the concept of handbooks and technical illustration from two very different eras. The first era would be soon after the introduction of the printing press. The second era could be immediately prior to the introduction of the Internet. So, for the first set of studies I could explore the functioning of documents and technical illustration as the mode of production shifted from chiro- to typographic. For the second, as the mode of production shifted from typo- to electrographic.

This talk of modes of production calls for a Marxist approach... that I don't want to do. I want to stay consistent with the micro-structural approach of ANT or SCOT and avoid (wherever possible) discussion of the macro kind. My intention is not to pull a Braverman of handbook production but rather to explore the phenomena of handbook use and technical graphic interpretation.

This brief piece leaves me with a number of questions:

1. What is SCOT?
2. Is SCOT different from ANT?
3. Can SCOT or ANT incorporate elements of book history a la Darnton?
4. What are the modes of production from chiro to typo i.e., Eisenstein?
5. Who were the makers of the early handbooks? Keep in mind the Cat Massacre...
6. What questions are there for AGS? This is a big question...

Endnotes

From a "present-to-hand" copy of the DSM-IV (I'm not even sure why there's a copy sitting on the desk where I currently happen to be writing):

* Diagnostic criteria for 300.14 Dissociative Identity Disorder:

A. The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self).


B. At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behaviour.

C. Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.

D. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during Alcohol Intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).

Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.

Note to self: maintain "imaginary playmates"

B.

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