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Complexity theory as a way of understanding the web
Speech at 45th Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication, May, 1998.
Proceedings of the 45th Annual Conference. Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication. 1998. 207-209.
Complexity theory offers a way of understanding our role within the World Wide Web. Postulating a rhetorical object based on object-oriented analysis and design, we can harness a number of ideas from complexity theory to gain a new perspective on the Web.
This paper reviews a number of complexity ideas that may help technical communicators grapple with the exponential growth in the volume of inter-related and interacting rhetorical objects on the Web, viewing the rhetorical situation as the result of the law of increasing returns, which has brought us through a phase transition to a new environment, with its own emergent properties, creating new roles for writers, and new work for managers.
Increasingly, technical communicators are being asked to publish more material on the Web, edit information from other groups, respond to email, chat with users online, and create a process for the delivery of information we have never before been responsible for. We may still be responsible for writing manuals and online help systems, but more and more we are also being asked to create web sites, act as gatekeepers for the information coming from many departments to be published on the web, and perform the roles of host and chief conversationalist for our organization, bringing together subject matter experts and users, facilitating a process rather than creating distinct products such as books and CD-ROMs , .
In talking with other technical communicators, I hear several interrelated questions coming up with increasing intensity:
Complexity theory offers some surprising perspectives on this situation. Complexity theory is not yet a single, unified approach, but rather a set of ideas developed in such disparate fields as economics, biology, neurosurgery, anthropology, and artificial life -. Individual researchers in each of these fields have begun developing theories specifically to cope with situations that are too complex to explain by earlier principles. Perhaps complexity theory can help us, as technical communicators, understand the Web world in which we find ourselves.
In this paper, I pinpoint a few key concepts in the evolving theory of complex, interactive systems, showing how I think they may clarify what is happening as we create Web sites, update them, transform them, and link to hundreds of other web sites around the world.
In a complex interactive system, agents perform relatively simple actions for their own purposes. In this scenario, we are agents, creating our corporate or department site, filling it with content, and then constantly changing the interface and content. From these activities, performed by agents like us around the world, the Web evolves.
We assemble the building blocks of our site-what I call rhetorical objects such as pages, image maps, paragraphs, and links. Each of these chunks resembles an object as seen by object-oriented programmers -, because each:
Complex interactive systems like the Web give evidence of following the law of increasing returns, the tendency in such systems for a trend to accelerate, and dominate the entire system, instead of settling back into a corner, as in traditional economic theory, which predicts gradually decreasing returns -. This accelerating tendency leads to path dependence, that is, an eventual lock-in to a particular technology, approach, or system, even if that is not the most efficient or productive. For example, in creating our Web sites, we may find similar tendencies pressuring us to follow the latest trends in Web design just because so many of our users have gotten used to them.
Phase transitions take place when the objects within a system multiply exponentially, moving the system from one phase to another. Clearly we are witnessing an enormous growth in the number of rhetorical objects on the Web, and that growth has taken us to a new level, in which we see emergent behaviors, that is, behavior we did not see before, when we faced less volume. Examples include building chat systems into our documentation, regarding email as a way to develop new materials for our users, changing our role from sole creator to editor, or facilitator.
Control is dispersed, in such an evolving system. No one person is in charge, no company, no consortium really dictates what appears on the Web. It appears to have a life of its own. It constantly probes the edge of chaos, risking complete anarchy, but, as a result of billions of individual decisions by all of us agents, the Web keeps on adapting to the present, changing in a way that mimics a conscious lifeform growing from cell to tissue to organ to body.
In such an emerging, complex, interactive system, our roles are changing, as we adapt to this new environment:
In turn, managers are going to need to reconsider the way they assign staff to projects, and monitor work. For example, you may need to assign one person to a particular subject area, and make that person responsible not just for updating the information online, but also for communicating with users, subject matter experts, and other staff such as salespeople; the "writer" is now a hub for information about that topic. Similarly, you may have to measure productivity by the number of emails responded to, number of postings to the bulletin board, number of updates, rather than on-time delivery of a particular manual. Time frames shrink from months to weeks.
From the perspective of complexity theory, then, the future looks, well, complex, but not as overwhelming as it would be if we were to imagine that in such a world we would still need to act the way we did before, creating lots of individual documents (both hard copy and electronic), plus doing all the Web stuff as a kind of extra. No, just as we have moved away from paper documentation as our primary mode of delivery, we will move away from a document-centered view to one that sees individual objects as our work focus, and the Web as an extended conversation in which we actively participate.
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