Sunday, January 08, 2006

Technical Handbooks

Handbooks are in an odd category. They can't be considered "working documents"--i.e., a direct material input into a process such as lab notes or engineering drawings; But they also aren't an example of "epistemic documents": documents about the creation of truth that form what Fleck would call "journal science."

Instead, handbooks are a component of the vademecum of science. They could be considered "tekhnical documents" because they are meaningless to those without the practical knowlede to execute what they represent. According to Fleck:

"In contrast with popular science, whose aim is vividness, professional science in its vademecum (or handbook) form requires a critical synopsis in an organized system... It is not possible to produce a vademecum simply from a collection of articles that have appeared in journals. Onnly thorugh the socio-cognitive migration of fragments of personal knoweldge within the esoteric circle, combined with feedback [Ru:ckwirkung] from the exoteric circle, are these fragments altered so that additive, impersonal parts ca arise from the nonadditive personal ones." (pg. 118)

Fleck describes a scenario where the modalities of scientific statements ("I believe"; "it appears") are slowly stripped out in favour of statement of fact:

"Describable in terms of laboriously established, disjointed signals of resistance in thinking, this provisional, uncertain, and personally colored nonadditive journal science, then, is converted next into vademecum science by the migration of ideas throughout the collective. As we have already pointed out, this striving toward community, which expresses the dominance of the rank-and-file members of the thought collective of science overs it elite, will be found in every work of the scientist." (pg. 119)

Yet in the technical handbook we don't find this process of community vetting. Instead we see the work becoming a way of establishing priority and authority. The inventions of Ramelli, for example, weren't deemed necessary and appropriate by some board of ingenieurs. Instead, he created object which may--or may not--be realizable by the extant technical skills and materials. Similarly, the "standards" of Architectural Graphic Standards are created by their being in the book itself. Ramsey and Sleeper attempted to overcome a crisis in information by
boiling down what they thought were the most important concepts in practice. This process has shifted under the auspices of the AIA. Now, various firms contribute pages to AGS and in the process become experts.

Ramelli, Besson, and the other early mechanics had no standards to work from. The AGS is a slightly different story. Contained within the pages are references to building codes and best practices established by professional bodies and industry groups. The creation of these codes, however, seems to involve a different process that the one described by Fleck. These groups aren't necessarily interested in truth--can there by truth in window glazing? Rather, they act out of some sort of special interest. A government body may act out of hope for the public interest. A trade organization, however, may act out of the interests of maintaining market share or product quality.

Let's return to Fleck:

"The vademecum is therefor not simply the result of either a compilation or a collection of various journal contributions. The former is impossible because such papers often contradict each other. The latter does not yield a closed system, which is the goal of vademecum science. A vademecum is built up from individual contributions through selection and orderly arrangement like a mosaic from many colored stones. The plan according to which selection and arrangement are made will then provide the guidelines for future research. It governs the decision on what counts as a basic concept, what methods should be accepted, which research directions appear most promising, which scientists should be selected for prominent positions and which should simply be consigned to oblivion. Such a plan originates through esoteric communication of thought--during discussion among the experts, through mutual agreement and mutual misunderstanding, through mutual concessions and mutual incitement to obstinacy. When two ideas conflict with each other, all the forces of demagogy are activated. And it is almost always a third idea that emerges triumphant: one woven from exoteric, alien-collective, and controversial strands." (pg. 120)

Fleck add some more interesting points that could be relevant to technical handbooks as well:

"If a fact is taken to mean something fixed and proven, it exists only in vademecum science. The preliminary stage of disjointed signals of resistance within journal science really constitutes only the predisposition for a fact. Later, at the stage of everyday popular knowledge, the fact becomes incarnated as an immediately perceptible object of reality." (pg. 125)


Fleck, Ludwik ([1935] 1979). Genesis and the development of scientific fact. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.


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