Another Relatively Unique Document

Welcome to relativity, part two.

In part one, we looked at relativity’s laws regarding motion, gravity, and light. Part two will explore the connections between mass, energy, space, and time. 

It’s all about ME (Mass and Energy)

Everyone knows e=mc2, Einstein’s famous equation uniting mass and energy. This formula indicates that a small amount of mass contains a tremendous amount of energy.

1Atomic weapons graphically illustrate this: a small amount of unstable, radioactive material is forced to rapidly decay releasing a huge amount of energy in a massive explosion. Nuclear power plants do this on a kinder, gentler scale, but the principle is the same: mass contains energy.

To state it another way: mass (or matter) is solidified energy. These are the two states of existence for everything in the universe.

Information development also consists of two states: (subject) matter and energy. Energy is comprised of the effort required to develop information, including: researching, interviewing, analyzing, testing, writing, editing, updating and managing. All this energy is then channelled to produce a piece of subject matter.

It can take a tremendous amount of informational development energy to produce even a small amount of information. The end user never sees the energy that goes into producing a guide. But technical communicators do, and that’s really what matters.

Time for some space

Relativity states that space and time exist together in a single frame of reference known as the space-time continuum, or simply spacetime. Spacetime is made up of the three dimensions of space, and a fourth dimension of time. Einstein showed that extremely massive objects can bend not only space, but also time, showing that the two are inextricably linked.

All informational objects occupy a point in space, the space being the medium the object resides in: a printed page, a PDF, a website, and so on. But these objects also reside in time: when a user closes a book or turns off or away from the computer displaying the information, the object ceases to exist, if only temporarily.

A guide itself requires space to be usable, specifically, white space. White space allows the information to breathe, improving usability. Documentation also requires time for an information developer to create and update the drafts. In fact, the highest quality drafts result when enough time passes between reviews. This extra time gives the information developer and reviewers a fresh perspective. It is a necessary space of time – a spacetime.

Be small. Slow down. That’s heavy, man.

If we could observe an object traveling near the speed of light, we’d see three incredible things happen:

  • the object would shrink in size in the direction it was moving
  • the mass of the object would increase
  • time would slow down for the object

On the last point, if the object was a clock, we’d see it moving more slowly as time passed at a slower rate. However, from the perspective of the object, time would be passing at a normal rate. This effect is known as time dilation.

1To illustrate the power of this, imagine if you were traveling near the speed of light and looked back on Earth using a powerful telescope. You’d see everything moving more rapidly on Earth, as though it was on fast-forward. You might later return having only experience a few days passing from your perspective, but returning to an Earth where hundreds, or even thousands of years have passed – a one-way time trip into the future.

These three remarkable transformations have been confirmed by science. They also explain why relativity states that nothing can travel faster than light. If an object could travel the speed of light, it would shrink to nothing, time would stop completely for it, and its mass would be infinite. To accelerate something to the speed of light requires an infinite amount of energy, which the universe simply does not have.

The incredible shrinking communicator
As an informational object is developed, it moves through the information development process. It starts out large in size and scope, consisting of many internal notes, documents, functional and design specifications, emails, phone calls, interviews and other meetings.

As the object accelerates through the process, much of the excess information is edited away. The information object shrinks in the direction of its motion, arriving at its final form: practical, relevant, and smaller.

Massive changes
Information mass does not refer to the size of information. Although we can speak about “massive” amounts of information, this does not describe the quality or usability of the information. A massive amount of information is often unusable because the user cannot find what they are looking for.

Instead, mass refers to the substance, practicality and meaning of an information object. The greater the mass, the more valuable the object is to the end user.

Again, as an information object moves through the development process, its mass increases, even though its size decreases. In fact, it is precisely because its size has shrunk that its mass (informational value) has increased, because all the non-relevant pieces have been vaporized.

Slow down, you move too fast
The slowing down of time does not apply directly to information objects, because these objects cannot experience time – only people can. Therefore, the time dilation effect applies to the people involved in the documentation process, primarily the technical communicators.

When a technical communicator moves an object through the information development process, they are intently focused on the development of its content. The communicator’s perception of time changes. Were we to observe the communicator, they might even appear motionless, as though time had stopped or slowed down for them. However, from the perspective of the communicator, time progresses normally. It is only when they stop moving through the process (when they take a break) that they realize that many hours may have passed.

The end user experiences a similar distortion of time when they are so focused on reading a topic that they also lose track of time. However, the effect is not as pronounced, because it requires much more energy to create information that to consume it. When we create information, we imagine all the paths it might take, and will often experiment with different wordings and formats. The end user only sees the one final, simple path.

Who broke my Time Machine?!

Returning now to the original discovery of particles that can travel faster than light: one of the reasons scientists are skeptical about this claim is that if such particles existed, they would travel backwards in time. These types of particles have already been imagined and are called tachyons.

Backwards time travel leads to all sorts of strange paradoxes. The classic one involves going back and time and killing one of your parents before you were born. If your parent is dead, then how were you able to be born and go back to kill one of your parents?

Technical communicators face a similar paradox with their end users. Users are constantly looking for information. However, often users don’t know what they are looking for. But then if they don’t know what they are looking for, how will they know what to look for?

The solution involves not tachyons but taxonomy, the art and science of classifying information into a format that a user can understand and access. This means:

  • giving topics clear, self-descriptive names
  • creating a TOC that groups topics into a logical hierarchy

and, most importantly,

  • creating an index that can read the mind of the end user by imaging all the ways they might look up a topic

Proper informational taxonomy eliminates the docs paradox.

My Crazy Relatives
It’s not surprising that documentation has much in common with the theory of relatively. All documentation is relative, because each user brings to each document their own perspective, knowledge, experience and bias. No two users see the same document the same way. Each document, therefore, appears differently relative to each user.

As we’ve seen, it’s impossible for almost anything to travel anywhere near the speed of light, including our users. But with clear documentation, we can enable our users to see the light.

In doing so, our users will travel, not at the speed of light, but the speed of enlightenment.