Wiring diagram on a yellowed page with the label "Earlier systems without the solenoid switch have only a manually operated starting switch." Image excerpted from Operators Instructions for Caterpillar Diesel D318 Engine and Electric Set, p96.

Haunted manuals

You've heard of the curse of knowledge, but could your manual be haunted as well?

by AK Krajewska

The cover is marked and stained and the pages smell faintly of motor oil. Page 90 (Battery Care) and page 91 (Voltage Regulator) were stuck together at the corners with something that left white residue in the center and yellow staining at the edges. I'm a romantic so want to believe it's old battery acid. Despite that, I don't think that my copy of the Operator's Instructions for Caterpillar Diesel D318 Engine and Electric Set (Serial numbers 5V5001 - Up, 3V5001 - Up) is haunted. Best as I can tell, it was printed in the 50s or 60s. It doesn't have a date anywhere, thought I found a reference in the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum's online Guide to the Agricultural Technology Manuals Collection that gives the date as 1950. It's Manual No. 234 in the collection if you're ever passing through Lodi and want to check one out. Old machine aficionado forums speak of the engine it describes warmly, as a "runs forever" machine.

It's an old manual, but it's not haunted. At least, not the way I mean.

The curse of knowledge

I say in the subtitle that you've heard of the curse of knowledge, but when I described the post to my live-in beta reader, it turned out he hadn't heard of the curse of knowledge. Which is pretty ironic. So let me define my terms a little bit. The curse of knowledge is the tendency of people who know a lot about a subject to overestimate how much other people know about it. Worse, whole groups of people who work in a field and are all familiar with it tend to imagine that people outside their field know a lot more than they do. If all your friends are data scientists, asking them if they think the average person knows what "cardinality" means will probably not get you a good answer. Even when knowledgeable people try to compensate, they still overestimate how much a non-expert knows. There's a good XKCD comic about the curse of knowledge.

Technical writers can try to compensate for the curse of knowledge by never getting too good at anything and switching projects as soon as we stop feeling like a complete stupid baby in the field we are writing about. Unfortunately, even if you try really hard and believe in yourself, you are bound to retain some information, and the job market is not always such that you can job hop frequently enough to retain the innocence of a tiny child with regards to technical topics. In those situations, we are forced to rely on user feedback, essentially finding volunteers who will feel like stupid babies because the documentation makes too many assumptions, and then tell us about their feelings, and ideally, also the specific part of the manual that caused them. Do this enough, and you can break the curse of knowledge and exorcise your documentation. If you think that sounds hard for everyone involved, it is. Sadly, much of the world's technical documentation remains cursed.

However, cursed is not the same thing as haunted.

Damn, I'm channeling Derrida again with all this elliptical way of getting at what the thing is by examples of what it's not. Speaking of Derrida, there's another term I have to define.


Hauntology started as a stupid pun that Derrida made up to express the way that Marxism persisted and recurred in discourse after and about "the fall of communism." (I put that in quotes not because Derrida said that, but because the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union wasn't even the end of state communism, and yet at the time, it seemed like it was to Europeans and Euro-Americans at least.)

The stupid pun mixes and matches bits of philosophy. In the Communist Manifesto Marx writes "a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism" so there's your ghost/spectre. Ontology is the study of onts. No, sorry, ontology is actually the philosophical field of inquiry into how stuff is. (Ontology in information science is the study of how stuff is categorized, which is subtly different and actually much easier to talk about.) That gives you -tology. Because spectrology sounds too much like actual ghost hunting (I confess, I am speculating), Derrida went with "haunt" for the first part and so that gives us hauntology.

The way I think of hauntology is that it's examining how elements of the past which are supposedly gone somehow persist in the present. Hauntology is when a new thing is haunted with an idea from the past, as though the new thing was an old thing with actual scars or marks of the past. Hauntology is when things, even though they are absent, somehow still exert a visible influence on the present.

Hauntology is also one of those pretty loose terms that everyone uses a little differently, so don't take my definition as final.

But do take my definition as the starting point for what I mean by some manuals are haunted.

A spectre is haunting documentation

When I say some manuals are haunted, I'm not talking about an instance of a particular manual like the Diesel D318 that has been touched and used and marked up and perhaps even bled on. I am talking about the content of the manual. A GitHub README can be haunted. A Word document left behind by a former coworker on their last day can be haunted. An instructions tab in a spreadsheet can be haunted. (A spreadsheet can be haunted, but maybe that's another topic.)

In a previous post about Derrida and logocentrism, I talked about manuals haunted by a nonexistent past:

It’s like even some of the manuals that aren’t supplemental training materials have a ghost of an in-person training lurking in their imagined origins. (Dangerous texts)

A manual can be born haunted in this hauntological sense, born already haunted by an absent presence, as of an imagined original function or an absent creator. But a manual can also become haunted over time, through revisions, or through neglect and bitrot.

I have more examples but I don't have time to develop them tonight. It got late because I spent a lot of time defining terms and reading tractor fancier forums to find the provenance of my example print manual, so I'm very sorry to say, there will have to be a part 2. I already have notes for it, so it will happen, later. In the meantime, please don't be too haunted by its absent presence.

The haunted manuals series

  1. Haunted manuals: You've heard of the curse of knowledge, but could your manual be haunted as well? < You are here
  2. Elegant diagrams (not haunted): Haunted manuals, part 2, being a digression through circuit diagrams
  3. A taxonomy of old haunted manuals: Your manual is haunted. But how, exactly? (Haunted manuals part 3)

The header image is my scan of a wiring diagram from the Operator's Instructions for Caterpillar Diesel D318 Engine and Electric Set (Serial numbers 5V5001 - Up, 3V5001 - Up), page 96.