|The Age of Illiteracy|
issue #04 (December 1981)
The Sunnyvale Elks Lodge is centrally located among the computer factories of Silicon Valley, and their dining room serves an edible $4 lunch. So every Tuesday noon it is the meeting place for a unique breed of engineer—unique even among the variegated whiz kids of today’s high-technology world—the high-tech writer.
Most of the people who gather there to talk shop and find jobs are “contract” writers: they are hired by the hour to do a specific project or work for a specific length of time. They compose and edit instruction manuals, technical specifications, project reports, test procedures, and the like. Some hire out through “body shops,” which keep in touch with the companies that need an occasional boost of documentation; others seek their connections directly. They are modern industrial mercenaries. Write words, will travel.
[quoteright]My first introduction to the curious world of high-technology contract writers was through a Mensa contact, who steered me to the Tuesday lunch. From the outset, three things struck me as remarkable. First was the amount of money they made. Contractors buy their own health plans and pension plans, and sick days or holidays are usually unpaid; but even allowing for this lack of fringe benefits, they do very well indeed. A person with the technical grasp of a junior engineer and the writing skills of a newspaper staffer can earn as much as the sum of these two jobs combined. One local M, who hustles well in this business, just bought his second Rolls-Royce.
The second remarkable thing about them is their job mobility. Like story-book gypsies, they go where the money is; they ruthlessly walk out when their commitments end, if there is more money to be made somewhere else. At one Tuesday lunch I recall, one of its regulars burst in waving a purchase order in the air. “I just got 27 (dollars an hour) at —— Company,” he declared. I could tell from the reactions around the table that —— Company was about to get a rash of phone calls.
But the third characteristic of high-tech writers is the most interesting of all. Few of them are under 30, and most are in their 40s and 50s. In an industry where engineers become vice-presidents at 28 and burn out at 40, this is an anomaly. Granted, we are talking about people who are pretty good at two different careers, engineering and writing. They bridge C. P. Snow’s “two cultures,” an achievement that might be expected to take longer than ordinary job training. However, I am convinced that this is not the whole story.
Most of the successful technical writers I know were educated before the 1960s; in particular, they were exposed to “old-fashioned” grade-school English. They learned to sound out word syllables, parse sentences, and construct paragraphs. They sweated through grammar and spelling drills under the iron rule of Miss Grunch, past whom no solecism slipped unchallenged. Alas, they missed all those wonderful classes in “communication skills,” delivered with modern audio-visual aids. In their day, it would have been laughable to call Miss Grunch’s syntactical chain gang a “learning experience.” But they came out of school able to write concise English, while today their junior colleagues can barely write babble. Later, they learned some technology, so the end result was persons who could understand engineers and at the same time create written records.
Miss Grunch trudged off to the pedagogical tar pits some time in the 1950s. A newer and more laid-back breed of educator took over. They were concerned with “social adjustment” and envisioned a day when electronic media would make most printed communications obsolete. Maybe they were right. But right or wrong, one of the legacies they created is an aging group of literate people, surrounded by younger people whose writing skills are barely adequate for them to cash their paychecks. In the world of Silicon Valley technologies, the literates now form a kind of elite, courted and paid well for their “old-fashioned” skills.
The other day a brochure from M.I.T. crossed my desk. It offers a course in digital signal processing (which is principally about the application of certain mathematical techniques to electronic circuit design) recorded on 21 videocassettes. A lecturer writes formulas on a blackboard, explains them, and occasionally holds up a circuit diagram to illustrate their use. This course sells quite briskly to companies who want to bring their engineers up to the state of the art in this field. It sells for $7,315. Alternatively, one can buy a textbook for $29.95 and a study guide for $26, the latter containing virtually all the pictorial material displayed by the videotapes. But the textbook and study guide alone don’t work with today’s engineers; McLuhan would say they were too “cold” for modern assimilation. You have to read them!
It is claimed that America is becoming an “informational society.” In 1950, 65% of American workers actually performed or managed the production of goods, while 17% produced information or guidance. Today  these figures are 30% and 55%. Although most of this growth has occurred in the electronic media, the written word has had its share. However, this shift has not been supported by an increase in literacy. Instead, the literates now find themselves dying out, practitioners of an ancient art bypassed by modern methods. We should wear green eyeshades and write with goose quills, as we spell out the runic manuscripts that formerly passed for written English.
It has been some time since I last dropped in at the technical writers’ Tuesday lunch. Maybe they have acquired some new blood, an infusion of younger writers turned out by an obscure grade school that never got around to buying an audio-visual teaching aids system and forgot to turn Miss Grunch out to pasture. I certainly hope so. Because if I have to keep on interpreting and rewriting the technical notes created by today’s engineers, before long I are going to writing the Reports as mostly disunderstandably like this here. Thanks, but give me a good book any time.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.