A commentary on Kimball's "The Golden Age of Technical Communication"

This is a personal commentary on Miles Kimball's "The Golden Age of Technical Communication". This was an assignment in my History of Technical Communication class at Missouri S&T


Asebi Bofah

6/15/20226 min read

Kimball categorizes the historical development trend of technical communication into four ages: Brass Age, Beige Age, Glass Age, and Golden Age. This classification, to an extent, concurs with Greek poet Hesiod and Roman poet Ovid’s accounts of the successive ages of humanity except that the evolution of technical communication over time is represented symbolically with different materials of increasing value.

The Brass Age is how Kimball refers to the era in which technical communication was initiated. Kimball agrees with several writers that the technical communication profession was triggered by World War II in the 1940s and beyond. He also talks about the role of money in the surge of technical communication in this age. The author mentions the excessive use of money in the conduct of war operations, including billions of dollars in the Pentagon budget. Besides, he points out how corrupt individuals leveraged technical writing as opportunities for fraud, as written in Malden Grange Bishop’s Billions for Confusion (1963). The theme of war and money captures the essence of this age and inspires its name; the brass shell casings in ammunition and British slang brass, which means money.

Kimball refers to the next era as the Beige age deriving its name from the color of the computers at the time. This period sheds light on the beginning of the fusion and ubiquity of computers in technical communication. It expounds on the reality that technology at the time was designed to suit the users instead of the inverse. Furthermore, Kimball accentuates how the ease of using computers and other technologies gradually phases out the need for documentation, comparing it to the redundancy of a manual for a hammer. To conclude, the author reiterates how technology has now been embedded in human lives such that we interact with them unconsciously. He states that “machines are prosthetic extensions of our bodies and self-conceptions, and we are prosthetic extensions of machines”.

The third age of technical communication is what Kimball refers to as the Glass Age. This era is based on how easily communication can be shared globally, which has sparked the segregation of the form and content of technical documentation. Kimball elaborates how technical communicators have begun to lose their original roles of contributing to the construction of documents, including text, visuals, and overall design. He also details with references how this divide has adversely impacted technical communication. For example, he states how related fields such as user experience and interaction design receive higher remuneration and how professionals in these disciplines are isolated from established technical communication bodies such as the STC.

The Golden Age of technical communication is an era where technical communication has diffused from only being a profession to including different forms of human knowledge and skills to assist and build the vast body of technology. For example, whenever I get an iPhone, I research social media to find out the latest jailbreak methods so I can fully customize my phone to suit my preference. Kimball refers to this unconventional, user-made form of communication as tactical technical communication .

Kimball identifies the differences in this contemporary form of communication from the strategic technical communication of organizations in four ways, which he refers to as markers of the Golden Age. He first categorizes them into visible and invisible forms. In his explanation, he denotes that strategic forms of technical communication usually remain unseen or superfluous until a failure occurs. For example, when people buy a new technological gadget like a computer, they often try to set them up themselves and will mostly only refer to a manual or other technical documentation only if they run into a problem or need help. Secondly, Kimball also classifies the two forms of communication as user-centered and user-created. Referring back to iPhones, I think Apple does a great job with user experience on its devices. However, I concur with Kimball that many organizations create their products mostly considering strategies to boost sales and build their brand, which limits the user’s freedom in using their products. That is a reason why the jailbreak community keeps growing because they provide user-created tweaks, which provide the user with a flexible and personalized user experience. The third marker that Kimball mentions is the visibility of authorship. For instance, if I look to find help in the manual that comes with my computer, there is no chance of knowing the actual person or people who authored it. However, if I find a similar help on a YouTube channel, there is a higher likelihood of me receiving some details of the creator of the content. The final marker of the Golden Age that Kimball introduces is the level of controllability and authenticity. I agree with the author that strategic technical communication is better controlled due to the extensive resources that many organizations have. These assets are either absent or few for many users and hence user-produced technical communication has a relatively lower quality content-wise. However, the author claims that tactical technical communication covers up this flaw with authenticity. I agree to an extent with this because user-produced content is more contextualized since traditional technical communication is much concerned about strategic and corporate performance. However, I also believe that since there is a plethora of user-created content, there is similarly a higher risk of having access to several spurious forms.

In one way or the other, the definitions of technical communication fail to state the interdependence of it being both a profession and discipline. In that light, Kimball suggests that the scope of technical communications should be widened to accommodate this mutuality and to extend it beyond the confines of the workplace. Kimball proposes a new definition of technical communication as “an activity that manages technological action through communication technologies, including writing itself, in a particular setting and for particular purposes.” I think Kimball gives a good explanation and justification to those who may think that this definition is too inclusive. For instance, he uses an analogy of how a short story could provide details to entertain or inform but will not provide context to impact its reuse as compared to a technical report. From my standpoint, I believe it is expedient to include the extensive view that Kimball puts forward into the scope of technical communication, especially since technical communication presents itself as more of an activity that users currently participate in than a professional career.

Given the growing and extensive implementation of technical communication, Kimball proposes different directions away from its traditional and primary purpose as training for professionals. Kimball proposes that much emphasis should be placed on the service course in the technical writing discipline as an instrument to reach out into human communication and technology. He mentions the need to break technical communication out of the limits of conventional academic genres and to extend its tentacles into routine human lives. He suggests that by applying experiential learning, students will be exposed to hands-on and realistic opportunities to provide an effective change in the world. He further explains that even though students working with organizations such as internships are beneficial, it should be a stimulus to address issues outside their borders. Another suggestion he makes is that professionals of the discipline should utilize resources in academic institutions by incorporating technical communication into other programs and leveraging its power as an essential element of scholarly growth and a medium for universal impact. In conclusion, he also suggests changing how these courses are called to make them more appealing and prevent associated stereotypes.

Kimball’s “Slightly Radical Suggestion” touches on the fact that despite the incorporation of writing into the introductory year of college, there should be a revisit to the contents and objectives of this instruction. Kimball carefully uses the word “slightly” to qualify his radical suggestions because he believes some preliminary changes have been done in that regard, citing the implementation of multiple media in writing as an example. However, he advises that it is more beneficial if this technological approach is used as a channel to bring about practical impact. Kimball also mentions the need for practical writing skills to be taught and developed inside specified disciplinary contexts to be transferable and rewarding to their related fields. Kimball shares the view with Bitton (1974) that technical writing with a broader scope should replace the current first-year composition (FYC) courses. He also brings up a more stringent approach to narrow FYC to one genre. I think confining technical writing to specific genres limits the scope of students. This is because the first year of college is testing grounds for most students to determine which academic or career path they want to embark on. Moreover, Kimball has several other suggestions like integrating a fully tracked curriculum with complex service-learning projects and introducing a tactical technical writing course in the second semester. In my opinion, even though Kimball has several genuine and valid ideas and suggestions and even provides good approaches to how these can be carried out, it would be more beneficial to combine them into a few digestible configurations. It feels like he throws in so many suggestions that make it hard for the reader to grasp and ascertain the efficiency of his proposals.