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Technical diversity/pluralism/fragmentation in tech comm

Trends to follow or forget

by Tom Johnson on Jun 4, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

This post is part of a series that explores tech comm trends that I've either followed or forgotten, and why. The overall goal is to better understand the reasons that drive trend adoption or abandonment in my personal career. This post focuses on technical diversity/pluralism/fragmentation.

Identifying the larger trend

I started this series (trends to follow or forget) with the original goal of analyzing fizzled trends, to understand why certain trends failed. My approach was an anti-trends focus. However, my initial survey found that no trends truly fizzled but continued on in some form or fashion. Every single one of them! Thus, I pivoted my analysis to look at reasons why I personally decided to abandon certain trends. Trends might not have fizzled across the tech comm industry, but many trends certainly fizzled in my own career. Why?

I analyzed 15 trends — some of which I’d embraced and later abandoned, others that I embraced and continued. Having analyzed 15 trends, I hoped to identify some recurring patterns or takeaways that would help me better understand what might make trends thrive or fail. I even listed a takeaway at the bottom of each trend. But it seems that each trend had its own merits and unique characteristics, and there weren’t any salient takeaways that might be leveraged to predict and assess future trends in a hands-down way.

There is one larger trend, however, that has been staring me in the face, hiding in plain sight and evident from my initial forays into the topic. It’s the trend I stumbled upon with my initial survey when I found that all trends continue on in some form or fashion: technical diversity. Reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants opened my view to diversity as a trajectory of technology. In this post, I’ll explore what it means for technical diversity/pluralism/fragmentation to be a trend. In fact, it’s more than a trend: it’s a trajectory of technology itself.

Technology’s trajectories

Kelly sees technology as a kind of living organism, growing and expanding and becoming more diverse, complex, ubiquitous, etc. He calls this growing body of technological advancement the “technium” and includes in it any kind of progress, not just technical inventions, computers, and other machines, but advanced ideas (such as scientific journal articles) as well. Tying the emergence and evolution of technology to a biological organism is thought-provoking enough, but Kelly seeks to answer the larger question of what this technical organism “wants.” Where is it heading, even if it (currently) lacks consciousness of purpose?

I first became interested in this topic when learning about technological determinism and seeing the often referenced quote from Karl Marx: “The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” This made me wonder whether the future that technology is leading us toward is something inherent in the designs and patterns of technology itself. That’s why I started reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.

Kelly outlines a number of trajectories that the technium is taking. Based on these trajectories, we can get a better idea of where technology is taking us. These trajectories are as follows:

  • Complexity
  • Diversity
  • Specialization
  • Ubiquity
  • Freedom
  • Mutualism
  • Beauty
  • Sentience
  • Structure
  • Evolvability

Among these 10 trajectories, the first three: complexity, diversity, and specialization seem the most relevant to the field of tech comm (but see pages 269 to 347 for a full description of each trajectory). Complexity, diversity, and specialization are intertwined and seem to feed each other. Overall, specialization might be the most interesting of them all and the one that fuels the other two. Let me lay in some background about specialization, extending outside Kelly’s book, that explains why it’s so transformational.

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Specialization and the division of labor

Technical writers are all too familiar with specialization and dilemmas about whether to be a generalist or a specialist. I’ve written previously about this in my Simplifying Complexity series: “Principle 11: Be both a generalist and specialist at the same time.” However, if we peel back the reasons for specialization a bit further, it might be the market itself that drives specialization. Some even say that specialization is one of a handful of forces that explains how society has evolved.

Let’s go back to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776) to understand the division of labor (essentially specialization) as a force that leads to wealth and abundance. Economics professors Russ Roberts and Mike Munger explore Smith’s ideas in depth in an excellent podcast called Mike Munger on the Division of Labor. They use the example of shoemaking, which I’ll try to summarize here.

A single artisan who makes an entire pair of shoes from scratch will be limited in how many shoes he or she can make in a year. Even if you quadruple the number of shoe artisans, as long as they each produce the whole shoes themselves, working independently on all aspects of the shoes, their output will be minimal. For example, maybe each artisan can make a dozen pairs of shoes in a year. With 4 independently working artisans, that would be about 50 shoes.

However, if you divide the labor for making shoes into specialized tasks across multiple workers, these specialized workers can make far more shoes than a single artisan (think 500+ shoes). For example, if one person specializes in procuring the leather, another in sewing together the leather, another in cobbling the heels, another in hardening the sole, and so on, this division of labor allows the shoemakers to produce many more shoes than the same number of single artisans making shoes as a whole. The difference isn’t linear either. A team of four specialized shoemakers each focusing on different aspects of the shoe will produce far more shoes than four artisan shoemakers who work on the entire shoes from start to finish. Henry Ford applies this same division of labor to automobiles and converted the car from a luxury item to something the masses could afford (which then shifted people from taking public transportation to using individual cars and our resulting car-dependent infrastructure).

Smith says “the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.” If the society in which you live (maybe a small village) needs only 10 pairs of shoes a year, the model of a single shoe artisan producing the entire shoe can still work. But if the society needs 1,000 pairs of shoes, you need to implement specialization. Also, specialization only starts to make sense if you can actually sell/trade the 1,000 pairs of shoes for your other needs (meaning, others need to specialize too). You focus on making shoes with the expectation that you can trade those shoes for books, medicine, food, tools, and so on. The person making tools assumes that he or she can trade those tools for shoes, etc.

For the specialized shoemakers to amplify their output (beyond 1,000 shoes), they need to specialize even more. They need specialized machines to do this work. Eventually, a shoe factory with lots of different machines performs the tasks of the individual human specialists, and the output might be a million shoes a year, with even fewer workers (proportional to the output) than before. You might have specialized machines performing the entire work of shoemaking, without a single human touching the shoes before they get to you. From factory floor to the shoe shop, there might not have been a single human hand touching the shoes.

The magic of specialization is that it provides abundance. As more people specialize, the output of products grows. We all have a lot more things. Take a look at all the many different types of things in your house. We have hundreds of more categories of every sort of thing than people did centuries ago. At my house, packages of “stuff” of all varieties from Amazon arrive weekly. Any walk down a supermarket aisle confirms our abundance. Or browse a shoe store and compare the selection of hundreds of models with the shoe selection produced by single artisans. Specialization unlocks abundance for everyone involved in this market economy. The division of labor is the secret to the wealth of nations.

While I’ve been referring to a diversity of goods here, diversity is much broader than material goods. The type of diversity that comes about from specialization includes a diversity of skills, diversity of knowledge, invention, ideas, and more. Kelly says “The diversity of the universe has been increasing since the beginning of time” (282). He says the universe starts out with quarks, then becomes subatomic particles, then elements and stars begin to form, the chemical universe appears, leading to single-cell organisms, then multicellular organisms, animals, humans, consciousness, and so on, increasing in both diversity and complexity. “The invention of life greatly accelerated the diversity in the universe. From a very few species 4 billion years ago, the number and variety of living species on Earth has increased dramatically over geological time to the 30 million now present,” Kelly writes (283). The technium accelerates the growth of diversity. Especially when you include scientific and technical ideas in this acceleration, the number of journal articles, patents, and other information output just keeps increasing (for example, the information on the Internet doubles every two years).

Kelly says, “The diversity of the technium has already surpassed our skills of recognition. There are so many varieties of things that one individual can’t name them” (285). Sure, some categories of things seem to be stagnating (e.g., butter churns), but look at the varieties of shoes (“Zappos carries 90,000 different varieties” (286)), or cell phones, or even movies and TV shows. Kelly’s discussion about diversity includes global standards in language, protocols, formats, etc. (which might seem counterintuitive), but these global standards actually amplify their adoption and variety of implementations.

Now let’s take the discussion back to trends in tech comm. I explored 15 trends in my own career:

  1. HATs and single-sourcing
  2. Wikis and crowdsourcing
  3. Faceted filtering
  4. Screencasting
  5. Quick reference guides
  6. WordPress and web CMSs
  7. DITA
  8. Content strategy
  9. Scrum
  10. Marcom and techcomm
  11. Every page is page one
  12. API documentation
  13. Git and GitHub
  14. Docs as code
  15. Remote work

In the ever-increasing diversity of the technium, trends don’t necessarily come and go. Trends add themselves to the ever-increasing variety of options available. It’s not as if one trend replaces another in a kind of equilibrium about practices. Instead, trends keep appearing and adding themselves to the constantly increasing variety of tools, practices, approaches, and philosophies in the field. Niche communities around trends aren’t something that flares up and then gets snuffed out as one trend replaces another; instead, we just get more and more trends, more niches, more sub-specializations. Growing diversity/pluralism/fragmentation in tech comm is the trend. It’s the trend of technology itself.

Downsides of technical diversity/pluralism/fragmentation

While Kelly celebrates the diversity/pluralism/fragmentation produced by technology, as it seems to lead to more choices and opportunities than ever before, others point to the way this technical diversity creates so many niches that a central identity for a discipline gets lost. In “Specialization, fragmentation, and pluralism in economics,” John Davis explores whether specialization in fragmenting the discipline of economics into too many independent and siloed niches, which “runs the risk of less disciplinary coherence” (2). What unifies and ties together all of these niches into a common discipline? Davis says:

…fragmentation can be thought to refer to a change in the nature and organisation of economic research whereby researchers have a decreased understanding of research programmes outside their own, operate in relatively isolated research niches, and it is less and less clear what unites research programmes and makes economics a single discipline. This scenario has potentially alarming consequences for economics as a science.” (3)

Although Davis is looking at the economics discipline, the same could be said for many other disciplines. He says the way the economics discipline categorizes its knowledge (a JEL code) has been expanding with more categories, subcategories, and other hierarchies. He then looks at several theoretical arguments behind specialization, including Adam Smith, Thomas Kuhn, and Ronald Heiner, to understand the influence and forces of specialization. I’ll summarize them in the sections below.

Adam Smith

David says Smith sees specialization as one of “a handful of major forces explaining the world” (8). And although Smith argues that division of labor through specialization leads to increased production, abundance, and wealth, Smith worried that reducing each worker’s role to a highly specialized task (as in his famous pin factory example, where the making of one pin for a machine involves 18 specialized tasks spread across 10 workers) would result in narrowing the mind and intelligence of the workers. Smith says:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. (qtd. in Davis, 9)

Others build on Smith to argue that this model gets exploited by social classes. The mass of workers, specialized in small, meaningless tasks rather than seeing the whole, become manipulated and controlled by higher-up managers who can manipulate the workers toward ends that the workers might not agree with if they understood what they were actually building.

Thomas Kuhn

Davis says that Thomas Kuhn, famous for his work on paradigm shifts that lead to scientific revolutions, strayed his original theory in his later works. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn originally postulated that as anomalies in a theory start to occur, many people reject or sweep the anomalies under a rug at first, but eventually the anomalies cause a paradigm shift. But in his later works, he argued that the dynamic of paradigm shifts occurs differently: scientists who study the anomalies start to form their own niches within the discipline, and these anomalies eventually become sub-disciplines in and of themselves that break apart the larger discipline. Davis explains:

… research on perceived anomalies becomes an end in itself for researchers who specialise in their investigation. It follows that the deeper their investigation of these problems, the more detached their research becomes from the wider frameworks from which they arose, so that paradigmatic thinking declines in importance in science as researchers focus on increasingly specialised problems (10).

In short, anomalies become areas of study themselves, becoming specialized niches that fragment and diversify the discipline. As these scientists focus their energies on these niches, they lose their connection with the discipline’s larger questions.

Ronald Heiner

Ronald Heiner argues that niches and fragmentation occur in the discipline more due to professional reasons related to the scientists’ need to maintain a livelihood than for the sake of science itself. To establish their professional livelihood/status, researchers seek out niches at the edges of their discipline because the profession forces them in this direction as a way to survive. Davis says, “Heiner sees increasing specialisation as a rational response to the increasing burden that scientists encounter in the need to be knowledgeable about an ever-accumulating body of scientific knowledge” (11).

In short, scientists embrace topics and questions they feel they can answer, which might lead to scholarly publications and employment. Scientists specialize to sustain their employment and tenure in the profession, not to further the larger goals of science itself.

When you look at the titles of scholarly publications, it’s clear that they become more and more esoteric and arcane because scholars need to find some unexplored area that they can own and publish some original ideas about. The engines of publications (which determine employment and promotion) force researchers to the edges of the discipline.

Centripetal versus centrifugal forces

Overall, Davis isn’t sure that there are enough centripetal forces (center-seeking) to counter the centrifugal forces (edge-seeking) of diversity/pluralism/fragmentation. Technology’s rapid acceleration ensures that the ongoing fragmentation into more and more niches and sub-specializations continues at an exponential rate, threatening the identity of a larger discipline united by common questions and goals.

Diversity/pluralism/fragmentation in tech comm

Let’s bring the discussion back to tech comm. Tech comm has always suffered problems of identity because, in an effort to build more community, it casts too wide of an umbrella. If you go to any STC conference, there are often 10 concurrent tracks that are about as diverse as one could imagine, including illustration, translation, content management systems, management topics, agile development methodologies, academic intersections, crisis communication, usability, web design, APIs, rhetoric, and more. The scope of “communication” is so broad in what it encompasses that it often excludes any sense of identity as a discipline. There is no longer a common set of tools, problems, and scenarios that unite the discipline. What isn’t encompassed by “communication”?

Without unity as a discipline, there’s a loss of identity and community. You see this in the way that the STC’s chapter organizations have basically disintegrated and been replaced by more niche online community channels in the Write the Docs Slack. There’s no overriding commonality of purpose that motivates co-located technical writers in the same geographic areas to travel to a meeting place to share ideas and best practices within the discipline (chapter meetings).

Instead, tech writers have turned to online organizations because the web allows remotely located people (spread across the continents) to align common interests in small niches. You might be interested in a very specialized topic (e.g., open-source XML tooling for web frameworks) for which there are only about 20 other people on the planet also interested. The web allows these 20 individuals to find a community and come together around this common problem set and goal. Multiply these niches by a hundredfold, and it’s questionable whether you still have a “technical communication” discipline to which all members of these niches feel they belong. The discipline is further dividing along these subgroups such as there are different conferences for software documentation, UX writing, API documentation, management, and more.

Beyond problems of community and identity, the diversity/pluralism/fragmentation also poses challenges for students and academic programs. What courses of study adequately prepare students to succeed as technical writers in the professional world? The answer to that question is as varied as the many practices and specializations in tech comm. A student seeking employment as a medical writer will need different coursework from a writer who wants to specialize in building tools for content management systems. A student who wants to go into translation requires different training than a student who wants to do API documentation. Even within API documentation, someone focusing on Android and Java requires different training than someone involved in Python and open source. In short, academic programs become hamstrung by the amount of diversity/pluralism/fragmentation available. Many students instead opt for technical bootcamps in the areas they plan to specialize in. And hiring managers seem only to focus on keywords related to specialty training (e.g., do you know C++? Do you know Flare?).

The good in diversity/pluralism/fragmentation

On the flip side, there are many positives surrounding the growing diversity/pluralism/fragmentation in tech comm. In What Technology Wants, Kelly celebrates the trajectory of the technium for the opportunities and choices it opens up. Kelly spent his youth traveling in Asia and many remote, technology-ridden parts of the world. He observed that communities cut off from the many opportunities that technology provides yearn to transition into these more abundant tech-filled spaces. When the opportunity presents itself, these people almost universally jump at it to increase the technology in their lives. Why? For the many new choices, freedoms, and opportunities that the technium brings. (Meanwhile, it’s only in tech-abundant places where you see people rejecting tech for a simpler, more primordial lifestyles.)

The many specializations within tech comm open up our choices and opportunities. As a technical writer, you have dozens of different paths you can go down:

  • Are you good at programming code? There’s a sweet spot available for you in API documentation.
  • Are you passionate about making user interfaces better? UX writing has many opportunities for you.
  • Are you good at building tools? The tools group would love to have your expertise.
  • Are you passionate about the developer experience? The developer relations group needs your help in building out materials for webinars, conferences, and partner engagements.
  • Are you interested in developing courses? The elearning group could use your talents in building interactive training.
  • Are you good at making screencasts? The corporation needs more animated tutorials with voiceovers.
  • Do you have a keen eye for language and style? Tech writers need a good editor to identify ways to improve the language in the myriad pages of documentation they’re writing.
  • Are you skilled at intaking massive amounts of information and synthesizing the big picture/journey for the content? Developer portals need your deep learning and research skills.
  • Do you enjoy blogging about tech comm and interacting in online communities? The Internet has a space for just for you, for your unique capabilities and passions.

The list continues on and on. You now have a space to express your most authentic talents and abilities. Kelly writes:

“As technology expands the possibility of space, it expands the chance that someone can find an outlet for their personal traits. We thus have a moral obligation to increase the best of technology. When we enlarge the variety and reach of technology, we increase options not just for ourselves and not just for others living but for all those to come as the technium ratchets up complexity and beauty over generations” (351).

Decades ago, with only a few paths in the field, you either found interest in being a tech writer or you found it boring and switched to another career. But now you have near infinite variety within the tech writing domains itself to seek out and find what interests you. If you find that being a tech writer is boring, you simply haven’t explored enough niches to find that one that excites you, and which can summon forth your best self and gifts.

The technium isn’t just a one-way opportunity for us to find the niche that fits our talent and interest. The more we give to the technium, the more it benefits and empowers others. This blog post primarily benefitted me, giving me a space to organize, compose, and explore answers to the questions I’m asking (why do trends fail?). My publishing and sharing this information might give rise to actions and contributions from others. This interaction fuelds the “mutualism” that the technium encourages. Kelly explains: “Evolution engineers mutualism into biology because its benefits are win-win. Individuals gain the group gains” (315). For example, in the case of Google, he says “We will depend on [Google], and it will depend on us—both to continue to exist and to continue getting smarter, because the more people use it the smart it gets” (313). I benefitted from the sources I find online that furthered my understanding of the topics I’m writing about, and my posts may further another person’s journey, and their feedback in turn informs me even more. Mutualism is why the technium is accelerating on an exponential rather than linear curve.

When I presented to STC India about trends, I hadn’t fully embraced the permanent diversity/pluralism/fragmentation in the field and tried to answer the question of whether remote work was here to stay. Among all trends, remote work seemed like one that was still up in the air, with many people undecided as to whether remote work was a fad or here to stay. What lessons could we draw upon from past trends to arrive at a conclusion about remote work and the future? Was remote work here to stay as the new norm for how we work, or would everyone be gradually returning to office? Surely my learning from past trends could help me assess the present trends, right?

Now I realize that the answer to the question of whether remote work is here to stay or will fade is both yes and yes. In a world of increasing variety and diversity, there will be companies offering fully remote work and companies offering an in-office experience, as well as companies offering hybrids of the two models. We won’t fully embrace one or the other collectively, as if the entire corporate world decides in unison on the same model for working. The growing diversity of the technium has expanded to diversify and fragment the working model as well. There are niches for fully online work, fully remote work, hybrid arrangements, and more. None is going away. All trends are here to stay. The technium increases the opportunities and choices available to you. Neither WFH or RTO will fizzle. I suspect that interactions in virtual worlds (e.g., Meta) will follow and make yet more work models available.

The technium expands the opportunities available. Now those who work best from home offices (in remote and beautiful Montana landscapes, for example) will have an opportunity to embrace that work model, just as city dwellers who thrive best in human-filled downtown offices will have opportunities to embrace that work model. We’re living in an era of hyper-diversity/pluralism/fragmentation where any model that was ever available continues to be a choice you can make. You can choose what options fit your most optimal self, so that you align your talents and interests in the way that fits you best.

In the next post, I’ll examine ways that this diversity/pluralism/fragmentation affects the documentation on developer portals.

References

Davis, John B. “Specialization, fragmentation, and pluralism in economics.The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 26.2 (2019): 271-293.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Viking: New York, 2010.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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