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News Every Day |

How the ‘Owner’s Guide’ Became a Rare Book

Just the other day, I had to read the manual. I’d borrowed my neighbor’s hammer drill to make some holes in a masonry wall, and I didn’t know how to swap the bits. Fortunately, the drill’s carrying case came with a booklet of instructions, which I followed with great success. Many holes were thus produced. This got me thinking: I used to read the manual fairly often; now I almost never do. I own a smartphone, a handful of laptops, and a barrage of smart-home gadgets; for several days this winter, I also played around with Apple’s brand-new, ultra-high-definition VR headset. Yet not a single one of these devices, each a million times more complicated than the drill, came with any useful printed matter—usually just a “Quick Start” booklet and, if I was lucky, a QR code that linked to further help online.

The instruction manual’s decline has been slow and plodding, like the act of going through a manual itself. (The universal joke about instruction manuals has always been that no one ever reads them.) Technological advances, especially in electronics, have made it easier for products to tell you how to use them as you go. The 1977 Atari Video Computer System could not display extensive text, so each game had a printed manual to explain its premise and its actions. Likewise, a VCR could show only a few letters and symbols on a simple LED display. But now almost every gizmo has a more advanced display built into it—or else it can connect to a smartphone that will act as one. And these displays will show you step-by-step instructions as you need them.

Another factor was the rise of new interface designs, and the promise of gadgets that were so intuitive, people wouldn’t even need instructions to begin with. The 1984 Apple Macintosh computer holds the reputation of being the first user-friendly computer, but it’s easy to forget that the Mac was not yet a device that you could just turn on and start using. In fact, the original machine came with a 165-page manual that covered how to manipulate windows, drag icons, and create documents. (“Use it now to learn the basic Macintosh skills,” the booklet commands its readers.) Through the mid-1990s, Apple’s products shipped with similar manuals—and sometimes Quick Start references, which most people chose to read instead. Eventually, the manuals disappeared. When the first iPod was released, in 2001, it was packaged with a one-sheet “Getting Started” guide that included a labeled diagram of its buttons and ports. The original iPhone, from 2007, came with just a folded strip of “Finger Tips” that described its basic operation. Over time, those guides became less common too.

[Read: The Apple Vision Pro is spectacular and sad]

The move away from manuals was good for business, the gadget journalist David Pogue told me. “Once the product is done, they want to ship it and start earning revenue,” he said. According to Pogue, a paper manual can take months to write, edit, and print. Why hold up distribution unless you really have to? Manufacturers also save some money when they choose not to print and pack a user guide, and post a PDF instead. This is better for the planet, too—a fact that may be touted to consumers.

As manuals became more rare, during the ’90s, Pogue helped start a countertrend. He tried replacing them with … other manuals. Some products—like Mac OS 9—had no manual at all, so third-party publishers would step in to create one. By 2000, Pogue had written Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, one in a long series of such books. In other cases, the official user’s guides that came with, say, photo-editing software or a word processor were bad enough that people would pay extra for a better version. A book like Photoshop CS4 for Dummies was written for real people rather than the product engineers and lawyers who presumably had a hand in creating and approving Adobe’s 700-page instruction guide. “You want a reference that discusses how things work and what things do, not in a technogeek or encyclopedic manner, but rather as an experienced friend might explain something to you,” the introduction says.

But these how-to books for consumer tech also fell into decline. Pogue, who wrote seven For Dummies books in addition to more than a dozen Missing Manuals, explained in a 2017 article that they’d been made less useful by free online tips and YouTube tutorials. People were also spending a lot more time using apps and software that are designed to seem as simple as possible. (He quoted the founder of O’Reilly Media, which published the Missing Manual series: “You don’t need a book to use Facebook.”) As a result, Pogue wrote, we’ve become ever more ignorant of our devices’ features, let alone their inner workings, even as those devices have grown ever more complex.

How-to information is arguably much more prevalent than it ever was before; it’s just distributed across the internet these days, and may be harder to find. “I feel worse for older people who much preferred a printed book with well-written, proofread, logically structured information and a good index,” Pogue told me. For them, searching Reddit or scrubbing through YouTube videos may not be a natural skill. The search for free advice can also introduce some frictions of its own. Recently, I became frustrated looking for the right video tutorial on replacing ignition coils in my car engine. None of the ones that listed the correct year and model had the same engine cover I did, so I wasn’t sure how to remove it. I eventually discovered the solution—just pull up—but I might have done so sooner had I not been so fixated on finding instructions.

For the moment, only certain species of the printed manual have gone extinct. My smartphone doesn’t have one; neither do my laptops. But the functions of my neighbor’s hammer drill have been clearly documented. Other, simpler machines have instructions, too. (Forgot how to operate your four-slice toaster? Just read the manual.) It makes sense that the workings of a smartphone or computer, or any other high-tech, general-purpose machine, would be harder to document than, say, a hammer drill, which exists to put holes of different sizes into bricks and concrete.

[Read: I wrote this on a 30-year-old computer]

But as I pored over the drill’s manual, I realized that it offered me a different kind of benefit: It taught me not only how to use the tool, but also how I might engage with it at a remove. A manual can be an instrument of the imagination: Instead of using a gadget, you ponder using it, or plan to use it, or reflect upon its possible uses. One joy of the erstwhile video-game manual was that it could be studied while away from the console, creating anticipation and helping players develop strategy. Before smartphones filled every idle moment with novelty, boredom was more common. To pass the time, you might pick up the guide for your camcorder or read the instructions for the microwave. A manual created intimacy with the consumer goods that surround you almost every day. It helped you get to know them in a deeper sense.

A digital manual can still do this work, I suppose. But in the same way that accessing a restaurant menu via QR code enforces a distraction from the experience of eating out, perusing a manual on your phone may work to separate you from the tool you mean to use. A printed manual allowed you to explore the operation of a machine as an activity in its own right. Even if you never read it, a manual offered assurance that unforeseen problems could be tamed. I recently had to add up the BTUs for my gas appliances so the utility company could issue the correct replacement meter; I was glad to have the manuals. When my lawn mower stopped working properly, the manual helped me decode the meaning of its indicator lights (the battery was overheating). However you might use the instructions, the manual is a thing in itself, worthy of keeping in a drawer with all the others. A manual suggests a relationship with a product.

That weird, bewitching attention to the inner life of manufactured goods appears to be endangered. Already, manuals have taken on a metaphorical meaning, standing for self-sufficiency. When you seek out gadget help on an online forum, your fellow citizens might urge you to RTFM. This doesn’t always mean that you should “read the fucking manual,” given that said manual may not exist. Rather, it’s a way of pointing to your need for help and calling it a weakness. But we all need help in understanding and connecting with the gadgets that surround us. Pogue told me that he still receives daily emails from people yearning for a Missing Manual guide to Windows 11 or iOS 18 or whatever else. “I’m so sorry,” he says in a reply so common that he has automated its generation, “but the economics just aren’t there anymore.”

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