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Tech Comm Lobotomies

by Tom Johnson on Aug 4, 2009
categories: technical-writing

Yesterday while driving I listened to a "Stuff You Should Know" podcast on transorbital lobotomies. Popular in the 1950s, the transorbital lobotomy was a procedure Walter Freeman performed by inserting an ice pick on the inside of your eyelid up into your frontal cortex to destroy the white matter tissue that was believed to cause extreme mood swings, schizophrenia, anxiety, maniacal behavior, or some other socio-emotional problem, such as "rebelliousness." The popularity of lobotomies lasted more than 20 years and included about 40,000 patients in the U.S.

In case you can't quite picture it, click here. (But avoid if you have a weak stomach.)

Today, the practice of lobotomies is considered revolting and barbaric. It cuts against our very sense of acceptable medical, human, and ethical practices. We're all glad ice-pick lobotomies are now illegal. But from a broader historical perspective, the lobotomy provides a kind of symbol for those activities that, in retrospect, we are embarrassed to admit we once practiced.

In the field of technical communication, I've had my share of figurative lobotomies. The first ice pick in my frontal cortex happened during the initial week I became a technical writer. A senior writer/mentor introduced me to my first project and explained, "The business analysts are very busy. Try not to bother them."

With this seemingly innocent remark, from the start she indoctrinated me with the idea that technical writers shouldn't bother other project members, that we needed to passively acquire our needed information on our own. If we should venture to speak to the Business Analyst, or an even more daring figure, the Project Manager, we would be encroaching on their time and space with our smelly peon presence.

This passive mentality was, as I later found out, about the worst characteristic a technical writer could adopt to survive. A better mindset for the work of technical writing would have been that of an investigative journalist or a Guantanamo interrogator.

For more insane patients, Freeman performed transorbital lobotomies not just in one eye, but in both. Keep in mind that to actually reach the frontal cortex, he had to poke through some bone. So these procedures were not painless. To render the patients unconscious for the procedure, he used electric shock, thus compounding the barbarity of the procedure.

For my second eye, the figurative lobotomy happened in a less direct way. Through unwritten department policies about video tutorials, I was led to believe that my own voice was not good enough to use in a video tutorial, should the tutorial even use voice. A proper video tutorial needed professional voice talent. Therefore, if I made video tutorials, they must use captions and be silent.

Again, the damaging message this ice-picking taught me took years to heal. It introduced me to the idea that my voice was poor, perhaps corrupt. It stifled me -- similar to the advice of not talking to subject matter experts. Only this time, the rule was not to talk at all, because I did not sound like a commercial narrator and could not learn to improve my situation either.

In retrospect, I later learned that I could record my own voice-based tutorials, and they were highly preferred over the silent ones, even if I didn't sound like a professional voice talent. Further, because I controlled every aspect of the tutorial, I could pull from my help material for the scripts, record and re-record and edit to my heart's content, and do it all in a quick, efficient amount of time. In the many video tutorials I've created since then, not once has a user complained about the quality of my voice.

Back to Freeman. Walter Freeman became so practiced with his lobotomy techniques that one time he performed a double transorbital lobotomy at the same time -- that is, holding an ice pick in each of his hands and inserting them simultaneously inside both of the patient's eyelids. During one demonstration of a double transorbital lobotomy, the patient, a woman, had two ice picks stuck inside her eyelids when Freeman paused to get a camera and take a picture. As he reached for the camera, one of the ice picks fell and immediately killed the patient. Freeman simply packed up his gear and drove to the next town.

The performance technique behind Freeman's practice of lobotomies also has some figurative application as well. Some of the barbaric, primitive practices in tech comm are also fueled by managers, leaders, and professionals who enjoy the show they're putting when they enforce standards. For some, it's not enough to deliver a figurative lobotomy to another individual. One does it with a sense of arrogance, a touch of showmanship, pride at years of experience, and an attitude of hierarchical mentoring.

In this attitude, without good reasoning, many project managers and others often lobotomize technical writers with the common assertion that "you can't talk to the user." Ultimately the managers have no sound argument but manage foist the idea on technical writers anyway. This is perhaps the most invasive lobotomy of all, because it cripples you from the very start. Without interacting with the user, you can't learn the user's vocabulary and the tasks they need to perform. Without a knowledge of user vocabulary and tasks, your help material is destined to be unhelpful. Without helpful user assistance, your role on the project team and your own sense of importance on the project diminishes. Eventually, your job as a technical communicator is pulled out from under you during budget cuts.

Although we look at the past with embarrassment about some of our practices, we often lack the foresight to see the present with the same degree of scrutiny. Years from now, we'll look back at what we're currently doing and not only blush, but feel remorse and wish we could get back what we lost.


Additional Resources

The Stuff You Should Know podcast I referred to was recorded May 19. You can listen directly here or search for "Stuff You Should Know" in iTunes and listen to the May 19 episode. Another great podcast is Howard Dully's "My Lobotomy" journey on NPR.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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