The problem with best

Posted by Chris Rosser on Wed 17 May 2017
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A number of years ago, I gave a presentation to a bunch of transport and spatial engineers in the UK on how to develop technical documentation. After running through the slide deck and giving my talk, tips and experiences, the first question someone asked was "what's the best programme for technical writing?". My reply was "best is a four-letter word". I've mellowed a bit since then and today when I present I'm not nearly so glib, but the underlying problem with questions of that nature still remains.

Much more recently, I was asked about the best blogging platform. My depends...has much more to do with the person asking the question than me, the so-called expert.

I understand why we ask these questions. Mostly, it comes down to time and money, both of which are precious. If we're looking to invest--or gain--either or both, then we want to be sure we're making the right choice. Who better to ask then than an expert or someone we trust. In the absence of that, there's always Google.

Search on Google for what's the best x for y you'll get dozens of hits on articles by people all pertaining to impart what they think is the best. Most of these articles are sheer click bait and the purpose is to maximise traffic and/or get readers to click the affiliate links for the products under consideration.

Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I'm sceptical of advice that has commercial motivation, be it subtle or more overt. On TV, I know when I'm being marketed to--we have adverts within shows and product placements within them. On the internet, it's not so clear cut. Naturally, people have a right to monetise their websites however they see fit but it still leaves a nasty taste in my mouth when I go a website looking for editorial and what I get is thinly disguised advertorial.

Last year, I reached the limits of my patience with desktop Linux and my Chromebook. I naturally turned to Google to research my options. I searched for things like what's the best laptop for writers. All sorts of interesting hits came up. There were adverts for the big tech companies you'd expect: Dell and Microsoft have bought a lot of keywords. There were a slew of tech press articles with headlines like Top 10 laptops for x that extolled the virtues and specifications of machines--often citing features at cross-purposes.

Serves me right, for not heeding my own advice.

Searching with that phrase led to me to discover the blog of Matt Gemmell. His post on the subject is only blog that makes the first page, so it must be really popular. Matt is a Scottish blogger and author whose reflections, perhaps obsession, for simplicity and focus makes for a thought-provoking read. I enjoy Matt's writing but even he, a man of considerable self-reflection, can fall into the trap of seeking the best. What's worse is I could have easily bought into this advice.

Matt held the belief that the 2015/2016 MacBook was the best laptop for writers. He's since retracted that statement and now warns people against that particular product line for a number of reasons, not least its terrible keyboard and Matt's belief that macOS is too complex for his sensibilities. As an aside, he's now an iOS convert and I am enjoying his take on how the iPad and iOS is making his work and life better -- for him.

Matt's journey serves as a cautionary tale to me and to anyone of whom others place enough trust in to answer these awkward, loaded questions about what is best in life. To one person, what is best in life is falcons on the wrist and the wind in ones hair. To others it's...well, I'll let Conan speak for himself.

The best, even the most well-considered advice has a shelf-life.

The best, even the most well-considered advice has a shelf-life. Conan's advice was appropriate for the Hyborian Age, Matt's advice barely lasted a year. Had I given a definitive answer of what I thought was the best technical writing program to those engineers back in 2009 my answer would have been Madcap Flare, which is what I was using at the time. That doesn't hold up in 2017 nor is that advice any good for someone who does not use Microsoft Windows, is cash strapped or is prevented from using it due to their employee's IT and procurement policies.

Best has a context akin to our emotional baggage. Best is not a specification. Best is not a product. Best is not even a fulfilling promise of what could be. Best is an aspiration and not necessarily a healthy one. Thanks to the subtle power of marketing it's very easy to convince ourselves that faster, newer, shinier, bigger, lighter, smaller product will make us the best.

Best is an aspiration and not necessarily a healthy one.

Thinking that best is something you can fast-track or acquire with the instant gratification of a purchase, doesn't consider that someone's best is an accumulation of their experience, hard work and often trial and error.

Instead of asking what is the best x for y, perhaps what we need to ask is how can I best use what I already have? Given diminishing natural resources and a post-GFC economy, it's a question we can all afford to ask.

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