Manuals and Other Time-Binders


I recently wrote a few manuals to help document methods for an organization.  In essence, I wrote them describing what I do so that should I become incapacitated, there is instruction on what I did to help a successor along.

In describing these manuals, I described them as “time-binding manuals.”  While I was definitely referring to general semantics with the reference, the reference was a surprisingly natural thing to say when it came to describing these manuals.  In writing these manuals, I was helping bind the future who might inherit my work with the past–that is, me, now–who is doing the work.  The manuals were like glue–they did the binding of the two different generations.

Things like manuals and a number of different kinds of written works are time-binding tools.  They exist by design to help the future understand the past.  Alfred Korzybski coined the term “time-binding,” and expounded upon it in his 1921 book Manhood of Humanity.  He described time-binding as the characteristic that distinguishes man from animal.  According to Korzybski, animals don’t time-bind.  Have you ever seen a monkey’s manual or a cow’s guidebook?

But maybe we didn’t need Korzybski to coin the term.  Maybe it would eventually have been used by the manual-writer who needed to underline the purpose of writing the manual.  “The manual is a time-binding tool to help preserve organizational procedure.”  In such a sentence, the term “time-binding” doesn’t have a technical meaning–just an everday one.  Remarkable, huh?

But it took Korzybski to underline the importance of this characteristic to humanity.  Animals and plants just don’t seem to do this.  Because of time-binding, humans can pick up where others left off in their work.  Because of time-binding, we don’t have to relearn things after our predecessors’ deaths; we can read a little bit then skip much of the frustrations they encountered and jump to the successes.  Of course I’m talking in general, and there’s something to be said about the value of making mistakes.  But it is because of things like manuals, we don’t need to make wrong steps in order to find right steps.  We can jump right to right steps.

And animals don’t seem to have this kind of benefit.  Surely, there is some evolutionarily programmed behavior animals exhibit.  But animals don’t typically progress from generation to generation.  If they build a wasp’s nest, it doesn’t end up with a porch or garage complete with garage door opener. It stays a wasp’s nest and becomes a wasp’s nest every time.   The human builds huts, then houses, then houses with garages with garage door openers, then whatever is to come.  The hut becomes something next.

What is fundamental to a manual?  Instruction.  How is instruction conveyed?  By words.  Give a future reader a set of words, and you yield particular results in the future.  So, your choice of words in your instructions now can have cultural impacts later.  Choose your words wisely as you offer instruction in your manuals because you might inadvertently wire the future for failure over success.

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