Who Documents?

Instead of repeatedly appealing for collaborators I am posting a series of my thoughts on documentation to publicise the documentation project. Part 1 – Why Document?

Once again this will all be with respect to appropriate open hardware. (still deciding on what is the best label to use).

Who is responsible for producing documentation about the thing?

In the normal process of producing proprietary technology, the thing is patented. Patenting defines the thing so that the patent holder may gain access to capital without the threat of others copying and having to share that capital. In the process of defining the thing documentation is produced. It may not provide instructions but it is detailed enough that an expert will be able to copy it, however, the barrier to copying is transferred from ability/knowledge to legal restrictions. Further documentation is produced in the act of accessing capital, the schematics made for self or external manufacture. Advertisement is also another level of documentation.

With open appropriate hardware, there is no patenting process, no mass manufacture and very little advertising.  It is not designed for the purpose of accessing capital, the intention is to access human capital.  Using the stages from my last post, it is necessary to document well enough to reach stage B. There is an expectation that the original inventors step up to make up for the gap left by the lack of the aforementioned activities. In some cases they do. Sometimes the crowd steps in. The rocket stove, rainwater harvesting systems etc all have adequate documentation. However, there are often poor or half finished attempts, take a quick scan through Appropedia. This is because documentation is hard, it requires a whole different set of skills than invention. It requires illustrative skills and communication skills. The ability to step outside your understanding and look at things afresh as a beginner. If the crowd is to do it, the crowd has to be engaged in the invention and there is only a limited number of people are engaged in any given invention.

If neither the inventor, nor the crowd is capable of delivering adequate documentation then who is left. In my previous post, I argued that this stage is crucial in letting the thing achieve its potential value. It starts to make sense to fund the act of documentation as part of funding research/projects. It starts to make sense, if it becomes necessary, to fund documentors to document the thing. The same way it makes sense, if it becomes necessary, to fund others to implement the thing. It makes sense to have a team, like the one I am proposing, specialise in documenting things and bringing them to “market” (or the open hardware version of the market).

Having outsiders documentors transfers the responsibility and accountability of good documentation away from the originator. It frees up the space for criticism, no longer is it directed to the person doing good work, it is in the hands of people who have chosen to shoulder the responsibility.

I hope that in future research/project funding proposals, the costs of documenting becomes as accepted and crucial to the budget as materials costs or storage costs rather than assume that it will naturally emerge. Whether this be the cost of letting the applicant spend a few weeks creating these documents or so that specialist can be hired. Individuals such as graphic artists or a whole dedicated team.

Next up “When to document?”

One Comment

  1. Added later
    Having outsiders documentors transfers the responsibility and accountability of good documentation away from the originator. It frees up the space for criticism, no longer is it directed to the person doing good work, it is in the hands of people who have chosen to shoulder the responsibility.

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