The Matrix – Redocumented

See the source imageThe concept behind the film “The Matrix” is greater than the film itself. If you are one of the three people on the planet that who have not seen this film, here’s a quick summary:

In the future, machines have conquered the world and need electric power to stay alive. They have enslaved humanity in a giant computer-generated simulation called The Matrix, and are using humans as batteries for their power source. The Matrix appears so real that no-one knows they are in it. However, some people have escaped the Matrix and are battling the machines to free humanity.

It’s a fantastic premise, unfortunately the film gets bogged down in endless action sequences and bizarre dialogue. It’s as though the directors input a science-fiction film, a martial-arts film, and an artsy philosophical film into a computer, scrambled them all together, and then spit something out.

The Matrix – Deconstructed

Much of the film involves humans battling the machine within the Matrix. I could never really understand this premise. Why do machines have to fight humans within a computer program? Wouldn’t the machines be sophisticated enough to physically locate their human opponents and annihilate them the old fashioned way? And even if you do accept the idea that the machines have to fight humans within the Matrix, why couldn’t the machines simply take on a massive, all-powerful form in the Matrix (rather than the relatively small humans forms which they do take) and quickly obliterate their human enemies? Perhaps the answers to these questions are in The Matrix Technical Guide, but I have been unable to obtain a copy.

Morpheus, Technical Writer

Another annoyance is the extreme Zen-like dialogue in which the characters blather on, especially Morpheus. He speaks in endlessly confusing allegories, metaphors and allusions, and everyone is too sheepish to ask “What the hell are you saying? He’s not exactly a Plain English advocate.

Morpheus would have been a most annoying tech writer. I imagine a conversation between him and his manager:

Manager: Morpheus, I had some questions about that last draft you sent me.

Morpheus: The answers you seek are all part of the questions you already know.

Manager: Uhm, ok, whatever…First, there seems to be some blank pages here.

Morpheus: Are the pages really blank? Or is it your mind that is “drawing” a blank.

Manager: Just get me the missing content. And another thing, this index is not in alphabetical order.

Morpheus: Why must things be in alphabetical order? Is the universe in alphabetical order? Does “Earth“ come before “Saturn“?

Manager: Well, I’m giving you an “order” – fix it. Also, there’s a procedure here that doesn’t make any sense.

Morpheus: You need to stop trying to read it and read it.

Manager: Look – I need all this fixed by the end of the week.

Morpheus: Do you really believe that documentation is limited by something as non-existent as time?

Manager: That’s it – you’re outta here! Get your things and go!

Morpheus: I was never here…and neither are you.

Neo: Whoa….

* * *

Reality…What a Concept

There were three Matrix films in total – can we call these “The Matrices”? In any case, these films do raise an important philosophical question: what is reality?

The fact is, it is impossible to prove that we do not live in “The Matrix”. We could all actually be unconscious, floating in tanks somewhere, all connected to a massive simulation of the world that we think is the real world. Or perhaps we all came into existence this very second, with all the memories of our life up to this moment downloaded into our minds.

Why then, would so few people accept these scenarios? I think it is because deep down, people naturally crave simplicity. Whenever there is a choice between a simple solution or a complex one, most people will choose the simpler one.

Shaving with Occam’s Razor
This idea is reflected in a principle called Occam’s Razor, which states you shouldn’t make any more assumptions than you need to in order to explain something. When there is more than one explanation available, the simplest one is preferred. In other words, one should always apply the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple, Silly.

Applying Occam’s Razor to information development, we would say: if there is more than one way to document something, choose the simpler way. The ability to remove unneeded information is as important as the ability to create useful information. It is so important that there are people who perform only this task – they are called editors. However, all information developers must also be editors, at least part-time.

The Science of Reality TV
Scientists continually strive to apply the principle of Occam’s Razor. In fact, it is science that has often completely changed our basic assumptions about the nature of reality. Atoms have been revealed to be over 99.999% empty space. That is, most of everything that we think of as real or solid is literally nothing. We perceive things to be solid because our senses are not acute enough to detect the emptiness: our minds fill in the blanks. You can easily experience this by seeing the pixels of a TV image up close, and then moving away from the TV. As you back away, the dots merge together to form a vivid image.

We therefore see one reality when viewing the screen up close: the various pixels flashing and flickering. As we move away, we see another reality: the moving images of a TV show. This is the “reality” we see on TV.

Or is it? All TV shows (even so-called “reality” shows like Survivor) are carefully planned and directed. They all represent a simulated or virtual reality. Reality is what happens when you turn off the TV.

Waiter, There’s Too Much Reality in My Soup (or maybe not enough)
Strangely, at the same time our minds are adding the missing pieces, they are also filtering out the excess data that we perceive; the data that we cannot process because it would overwhelm us. Therefore our minds are doing two seemingly contradictory actions: they supplement what we perceive with extra information, and simultaneously screen out other information. This means that we actually do live in “The Matrix”, because the world we perceive is not the real world, but is both an abridged and edited version of it. It is a house that has been heavily renovated and reconstructed, some parts added and others taken away, leaving what we perceive as the real house.

The big question is: if you could remove these additive and filtering processes, what would you see? What would the real reality look like? We can’t know, because these processes do not stop until you die, and no dead people have come back to document what they’ve seen.

Tech Comm – The New Math
In technical communication, there are also additive and subtractive processes at work. When users read instructions or information, they screen out what they think they don’t need, often focusing in on the key areas of information they think they require. At the same time, they are adding their previous experiences and ideas to the information they are absorbing, sometimes with unexpected results.

For example, many users are used to the idea of an “undo” function in software, a function that allows them to reverse a previous operation. They may assume they can “undo” anything, however sometimes this is not the case. They may read a procedure about how to delete an object, thinking they can undo it. They are literally “reading in” their experiences and assumptions into the text. When they learn they cannot undo a deletion, their perceptions clash with reality, and that is called pain!

The Document Hunt Begins
So, for both documentation and reality in general, what we perceive is what our minds have been programmed to perceive. In otherwords, perception is reality. This has huge implications for information development. If perception is reality, then nothing really exists in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, it is especially documentation that does not “exist”. You are currently reading this document online – the question is: where is the document? Is it on the screen? If so, if you turn off the screen, does the document cease to exist? No, because once you turn the screen on again, the document appears. Even if you shut down your system completely, others can still read the document.

In fact, a document, or any computer file, or even a TV show, can be on one screen, on no screens or on many screens at once, and still exist. What kind of “existence” is that? There is simply no parallel in the regular, non-electronic world. (However, as we will explore in future column, there are parallels in the subatomic world.)

Where, oh Where Has My Document Gone? Where, oh Where Could It Be?
Continuing our search: is the document on a hard drive? If you were to crack open the hard drive, would you see the document? No – so where is the document?

The answer is the same: perception is reality. Just as the real world exists because we perceive it to exist, so too does the document exist because we perceive it to exist. Our eyes receive the various shapes of letters, screen out what is not required, process the information and then feed it into our brain. No perception – no document.

Time for Your Annual Meta-Physical
It is no coincidence that science and philosophy can teach us much about information development. As I described in a lecture last month, information development, science and philosophy are all different attempts to discover the truth. They do this by modeling reality in different ways: documentation describes a thing or process, science describes the physical world, and philosophy describes the meta-physical world.

So as an information developer, you must always ask yourself: how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go, to document the concept we call reality?