You Shouldn’t Need To RTFM (YSNTR)

You are unable to figure out how a tricky little gadget works. (Or maybe it’s an app, or a computer tool.) So you ask someone nearby, maybe a friend or an instructor. They ask if you’ve read the manual. (Or maybe it’s an instruction booklet, or a help page.) You tell them you didn’t, and realize you already know the reply. They tell you to RTFM (Read The Fucking Manual!). You say “oh right”, and quickly get to reading the manual.

While you do so, you wonder how you’ve forgotten that, of course, what you are working with comes with a manual, and you could reference it. You feel like you’ve been through this before, that somehow a hidden confidence in being able to do things without a manual carries over, and something in your mind tells you you really don’t want to have to resort to the manual.

Your thought processes are actually justified, and it is so because you are a human. As a human, the manual is supposed to be your last resort. A manual is a useful item to have, but it is only supposed to be useful after you’ve exhausted the much finer mental and cognitive resources available to your human mind.

Have you ever used a manual to operate a doorknob? When did you consult a manual to climb the stairs? If you climbed straight stairs your entire life, and suddenly came upon a spiral staircase, do you need a manual to figure out that your steps should no longer follow a straight trajectory? You probably assumed just how you should adjust the typical way you climb stairs to scale this novel helical creature.

You are made to usually not need a manual. The human is able to make well-judged assumptions based solely on clever comparison rather than just confident fact, to be able to derive a solution to a situation not experienced before. To assume is not what makes an ass out of you and me; it’s what makes humans out of us. It is what makes us as intellectually productive and efficient in decision-making as we are. The power of the human is in its ability to find patterns, and from these patterns to make conclusions that approximate likely best solutions amazingly well for the amount of time and effort invested into the problem. This is what powers our tremendous progress in understanding and innovation.

Sometimes, the wrong patterns are looked at, and an unfortunate conclusion is reached, sometimes because of a failure to find the most relevant pattern, but oftentimes just because the means of conclusion by pattern-finding is purposefully not perfect and sometimes produces errors, because the process is so much more useful in exchange for the small discrepancy in accuracy. When we find patterns, we cut the corners where it’s least likely to matter to us, the places that are the reason why explaining something to another human is often much easier than programming that same something for a computer to execute. When we communicate with another human, we are communicating by pattern, where there’s a lot we can leave out and reasonably rely on context and experience to fill successfully most of the time, for which we don’t have to pedantically specify all the exceptional cases that we must explicitly tell to a computer, with which we are communicating like a manual. We figure things out; we just need the right clues to be able to. The actual problem is that cluing is tricky: it’s often hard to trigger the right mental processes, and even harder to trigger the right mental processes for everyone, across varied stages in education and across cultures, and without accidentally giving false clues at the same time. An excellent, thorough, and precise manual is nice, but a lack of necessity of a manual is even better.

We are the animal of the pattern. With this philia for patterns, we humans are prone to misjudging randomness, diving into rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, creating hurtful stereotypes, and other means of counterproductive assumption. But we have a far greater ability to use this trait productively, and have made it this remarkably far in life exactly because we have exercised it. And if we want to continue raising civilization upward at the breathtaking speed in which we have, we must acknowledge that this power in us is what fuels our progress, resist the urge to excessively curb assumption to account for every cranny and corner, and realize that rather than tell people to RTFM, we should ask how we can change the design of a tool to make people not need to resort to the manual, because that’s not what the human is made for.


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