When I was just starting to work as a computer journalist, one of the artists on staff offered me a simple job: he had an aquaintance who wanted some help with his new Macintosh computer. Naive as I was at the time, I turned it down on the premise that I couldn’t offer any information than said aquaintance would find in the manual that came with the computer and the software. As I was soon to discover, I was an oddball for actually reading the books that came with my equipment: everyone else in the world doesn’t, blunders along blindly, and when all else fails, are willing to pay generously for the help of an “expert” who actually read the book. They won’t even read the book if you tell them that’s the answer to their problem. When Human Computing was still a home-based business, I sometimes took tech support calls from people who wanted to know how to enter their collection into the database, and/or if there was an easier way to do so. Having written the manual, I knew all this was clearly and simply explained in chapter 3, complete with helpful pictures. I’d essentially read the manual aloud to them, and suggest they use it as a reference in the future. But even so, some customers took offense: one particularly memorable customer complained that the product was obviously too hard for ordinary people to use if it meant he had to read a 60-page large-print book in order to understand it. Another customer flew out to the San Diego Comic Con explicitly to get a live explanation of the product’s functions rather than read the book. Eventually, Peter stopped bothering to print the user guide and simply made it a PDF file on the disk. A favorite acronym of anyone who does technical support is RTFM for “read the f—ing manual” because most of the questions that come in are already answered in that simple book.

I place the blame on this widespread reluctance on reading squarely on the shoulders of my sixth grade teacher and others like her. I still remember the obnoxious in-class assignment I blame for this. She passed out a piece of paper with all sorts of odd instructions on it, like “poke seven holes in this paper with your pencil.” Being the nerd that I am, I followed the written instructions. Then the teacher said, verbally, “don’t do anything this paper tells you to do.” She asked the students who’d followed her verbal instructions, and not the written ones, to proudly show the other students their untouched pieces of paper. Personally, I was insulted: what kind of a teacher hands out the wrong instructions to their students. Only a handful of students complied with the teacher’s verbal instructions (or had been too illiterate to read the paper), but after that, I’m sure several more were intimidated into not trusting written instructions unless and until they’re combined with verbal ones. I still don’t understand what the point of the exercise was: perhaps she was creating the demand for more people in technical support, or maybe it was just pure sadism. In any case, it’s backfired, but probably not on her.


  1. Chris

    WTF kind of assignment was that? To make the fast readers feel like idiots for reading and following instructions faster than the teacher could issue stupid verbal ones? Sounds like sadism to me.

  2. ebrown

    I know EXACTLY what you mean. I once was at dinner party and was asked a question about Macs. I gave a good and correct answer. The questioner asked how I found the information? I responded that I read the manual (this was back in the day when manuals were still included). The questioner said, “Oh, I never thought of that.” Then another person spoke up: he actually wrote tech manuals and was so happy to find out that someone (anyone) found them useful.


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