The down side of writing things down

Starting after World War II, the idea was culture is accelerating. Like the idea of an accelerated culture was just central to everything. I feel like I wrote about this in the nineties as a journalist constantly. And the internet seemed like, this is gonna be the ultimate accelerant of this. Like, nothing is going to accelerate the acceleration of culture like this mode of communication. Then when it became ubiquitous, it sort of stopped everything, or made it so difficult to get beyond the present moment in a creative way.

Chuck Klosterman, interviewed on the Longform Podcast

We software developers are infamous for our documentation deficiencies: the eternal lament is that we never write enough stuff down. If you join a new team, you will inevitably discover that, even if some important information is written down, there’s also a lot of important information that is tacit knowledge of the team, passed down as what’s sometimes referred to as tribal lore.

But writing things down has a cost beyond the time and effort required to do the writing: written documents are durable, which means that they’re harder to change. This durability is a strength of documentation, but it’s also a weakness. Writing things down has a tendency to ossify the content, because it’s much more expensive to update than tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is much more fluid: it adapts to changing circumstances much more quickly and easily than updating documentation, as anybody who has dealt with out-of-date written procedures can attest to.

2 thoughts on “The down side of writing things down

  1. I’ve been working with a team where the supervisors have pressed the importance of using a wiki for run books because that is accessible by all members and easily tweaked to be suitable for all. Instead, each administrator has their own Word document copies for the systems they manage. When it comes time to cover for another, they might have an old copy or use the one for another system without the idiosyncrasies or lack the tribal lore.

    The Word document aspect hurt my head the other week because they were running into problems where copy and paste from Word into shell got the wrong quotes and blew up a process.

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