Document standards and the rankling print presumption

My heart sinks when I get a document by email. My work being mostly with government, this happens quite a lot. It takes time to load the document software, time to orient myself to the layout and time to scroll through the meta-lettuce that often precedes the meat. (Many of these documents also look horrid, but that's a separate issue.)

When I get a link to something on the web, I don't get that feeling. There's a reasonable chance that the text will be readily readable, whatever device I am using. It maybe a page of nonsense, but it will take me only a second or two to judge.

Documents are, at heart, designed around the printed paper page. I've nothing against printing, printing is lovely, if I press a print button I definitely want a pretty and properly-paginated document; but only then. It's the print presumption that rankles. If I am reading on my phone, which I do a lot, I don't want the faff that comes with an A4 pdf.

Word-processors are typewriters. The operator is responsible for the both the authoring and the formatting. It seems that many of the features of the modern word-processor are to do with printing. Soon most text will be read on a screen, formatting for which is largely out of the hands of writers. We will need text authoring tools, perhaps like the beautiful (and £6) IAWriter that I am using to write this: most of us just won't need word-processors.

I was encouraged to read Digital Strategy as a website, rather than on one about how a government policy was designed first as a website rather than a document. It was drafted in plain text, agreed using the collaboration features of Google Docs, stored on Github (a cloud repository for managing software) and published on No Word or PDF. Yes please.

There are better ways to collaborate on text. As tools like wikis become mainstream, the day of sending round a document for others to revise or comment on must surely be done. Having seen a wiki make a significant difference to ways of working in one government department, I am convinced that the benefits of having a text with all of its versions and all of the conversation about it in one place are huge.

Maybe that one place could even be a single wiki/google docs/github-like repository for the whole of government? The awkward and expensive problem of document and records management would look quite different (and possibly even soluble). There are issues to do with security, FOI and that; but these need dealing with, not working around - even if it means changing the law. It is time to move from circulating documents to visiting texts.

As I write, I am conscious that thousands of government folk, in offices across the nation, are firing up Word ready for another day of document production. This is a super-tanker that will be hard to turn. We must take every opportunity to change the mindset and - the point of this post - there is a good one now...

The government is currently consulting on standards for future formats of electronic documents. The consultation is in two parts: viewing and collaborating on documents. The main issue is about Microsoft's dominant position in the provision of office software (see Simon Wardley's post Cloud Standards and Governments that brilliantly explains the issues).

I feel uncomfortable that the requirement in the consultation is expressed in terms of documents:

"Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing editable documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents."

There is certainly an immediate, pressing need to define (open) standards for documents; but, in this consultation, I think it would help to replace the word 'document' with 'information'. There is a discontinuous change at hand and it is important to recognise that the future will not be the same as the past. For instance, if teleporting looked possible in the next twenty years, the London runway and the HS2 debates would be quite different ones. And I do think that the information tools becoming available now are potentially as revolutionary.

Our mental model for handling textual information is based on the printed paper created by a typewriter, distributed by post and kept in a folder. It got us over the introduction of personal computing but it's time we moved on.

[See this post on Github]

There is a summary of the reaction to this post on Storify