Sunday, January 13, 2008

The electronic lever and fulcrum

Archimedes rocks your world.

My colleague Larry the movie guy has noted odd things in the answers on tests he gives in his physics class, in which students are allowed to use calculators (Larry keeps a slide-rule around to show his students how things used to be done): students who get the more complicated math right but who end up getting the wrong answers because of mistakes in simple arithmetic; people whose calculations of a bullet's muzzle velocity yield answers which would be the result of the physical laws of a world in which you or I walking briskly would out-walk that bullet (Cool! We could go back to swinging jawbones of asses, then!); etc. "What are they thinking??" he sometimes exclaims.

My version of Larry's problem is similar by analogy: During the course of the semester, as has been the case throughout the Microsoft Word years, I will have occasion--several, in fact--to say things like "Spell checks only check spelling--not usage" and I will see my students nod sagely and smile at the inanity of someone's thinking otherwise and yet, come the succeeding sets of papers, I will see yet more raft-loads of there/their/they're and two/to/too and weather/whether and accept/except confusions. I'd list yet more, but you get the idea. And don't get me started on apostrophe usage.

It's tempting to blame students and/or the impoverished state of their grade-school education for these problems, but I don't think that's entirely fair. I may be falling prey to "in my day"-type thinking, but it does seem to me that such errors have become more common as computers have supplanted typewriters or, more precisely, as spell-checks have become a feature of word-processing softwares. I would lay some of the blame, therefore, at the straw-man feet of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Their softwares have so reduced the mental work involved in producing a text that it can easily create the illusion that once the words appear on the screen, what else is there to do?

Randall of Musings from the Hinterland posts on a different version of this here: some of us have become so accustomed to thinking of computers as labor-saving devices that, as you'll see when you read his post, our insistence on using them as such can lead some of us to become inefficient--the Old Ways of Doing Things would have actually saved us considerably more time than we expended while looking for a way to perform the same task via nifty widgets to save time. A different version of destroying the village in order to save it.

Larry and I once talked about all this last semester, and Archimedes came to mind. Or, more precisely, tools and how we think about them.

At a fundamental level, a computer is a tool, just like Archimedes' lever and fulcrum are. Both are instruments that perform work. But this particular comparison breaks down rather quickly. With the lever and fulcrum, the end results of the labor expended are immediately evident: you've pried the rock up and moved it, or you haven't and have to do it some more or reposition the fulcrum or what have you. Despite the obvious labor required, not much in the way of intellectual engagement is required to use this particular tool--nor, for that matter, emotional investment. Did you succeed in prying up the rock? Good. Next! At a certain level, then, the working of the lever and fulcrum is a passive activity. Physics doesn't care what you think.

Neither does a computer, come to think of it--all the more reason to keep in mind the old programmers' credo, "Garbage in, garbage out." The great strength and weakness of contemporary word-processing programs are that they make very easy the task of producing documents very fast. While the mechanics of producing a text become easier, the desire of most people to be finished with a writing task as quickly as possible, I suspect, becomes enabled by that same ease, thus leading to the problems mentioned above. Somewhere along the line, how we perceive writing has changed: it has always been work, but as the technologies used to produce it have changed, so also has our felt connectedness to its output. Which is to say, that as it has become easier to produce a physical text, we have become more intellectually and emotionally detached from the actual results of that production. Maybe part of the problem also is the language we use for these instruments and their softwares: computer. word processing. As though texts are akin to mathematical calculation, language as lunch meat.

There's also with it the fact that more of us have to write as part of our work, which not only makes practical its further technologizing but also leads to its devaluing as a skill worth doing well (again, because of the emotional detachment most of us tend to feel from the labors our employment require of us). It does not help that the ultimate disinterestedness of the machine to what it produces is actually antithetical to those attributes of Good Writing: clear, effective thinking and what the French would call le bon mot--which, unless we're especially gifted, take time.

By way of contrast to all this, consider Shelby Foote's use of a crow-quill pen to write his massive three-volume narrative of the Civil War. Without worrying here about the quality of Foote's writing, consider for a moment the mechanics of producing that text: a couple of short words, perhaps one word or a part of a word, written per dip of the quill in the ink; and always, always, the frequent few-seconds' pauses when the quill is raised from the page and toward the well and them back again, during which there is time to try out and retry and try again the next few words and phrases--in the inner ear rather than on the screen. There is no way to do this sort of writing fast.

This isn't an argument that we go back to quill pens or Royal manuals when we need to write anything worth writing (it is interesting, though, that Darren Wershler-Henry, author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, noted in this NPR interview that a soundless typewriter marketed in the '40s failed because, apparently, people liked the sound conventional typewriters produced). It's only an observation, and not a very profound one. But it's one that, as a teacher of writing, bears some consideration on my part, seeing as good writing more often than not gets produced by in some way(s) going against the grain of the very technology most of us use to produce writing nowadays.


Sheila said...

I'm altogether (one l) with you, John, about the deadfalls and snares that litter the path of computer-aided composition.

So I'm really just setting myself up as my own devil's advocate in observing that a certain degree of knowledge helps in the use of many writing aids. To get the full benefit of my beloved dead-tree edition of Roget's Thesaurus, for instance, I already have to understand nuances of meaning and reference well enough to select le mot juste from the list offered.

. . . which observation does not diminish the force of your arguments . . .

John B. said...

Thanks for your comments, Sheila.

Absolutely: the other post I could have written is how unprepared so many of our students are for those things that college work presumes a knowledge of. I have very few students who were read to as children or who read for pleasure, too; those environmental factors are also pretty good predictors of success in college generally. I'd just say that the ease of composing on a computer allows students to more easily elide all sorts of wrestlings with language that are the starting point for (most) good writing. Bob the Talking Paperclip would be more helpful if he couldn't be turned off and he were "smarter" about language. But the latter ain't gonna happen for a long while yet, so that means making the operators at least more self-aware about writing . . . which, really, amounts to being smarter about it.

R. Sherman said...

Not to sound like a Luddite here, but that is always the problem with technology: every advance in the "tools" of human endeavor leads to a decrease in self-reliance. If the tools disappear, we become helpless and have to relearn the "old ways."


Ashley said...

So I spent some time trying to leave a thoughtful comment. A response, in part to this lovely post, but also in an attempt to not be shy.

Does blogger frequently "lose" comments or am I doing something wrong repeatedly???

Okay. Back to a valid comment.

Yes! Well said even though I must admit that as a student one of the most difficult tasks for me is to stare at the little green lines and determine if I should trust the computer or my small and wavering understanding of grammar.

Similarly, I am still in shock to know the amount of people that know fewer than 2 or 3 phone numbers. A person loses their phone and then posts a note on facebook or sends mass emails exclaiming that they need your phone number! It's funny to think that phone numbers were actually designed to be easily recalled.

Even if it provides a sense of false security, there are times when I welcome word's promptings but still recognize all software's inability to fix or improve, well, garbage.

Sheila said...

Ashley . . . so glad you overcame your impulse toward shyness.

I'm astonished when I contemplate the number of friends' phone numbers I knew by heart (so to speak) ten or fifteen years ago . . .

John B. said...

Randall, there's a long book to be written on the theme of technology's isolating us not just from the most basic human activities but from, well, the cosmos. But you know, it's sort of already been written, come to think of it: Walden.

Ashley, Blogger does occasionally eat comments; thanks for persisting. As for those wavy green lines, if you feel uncertainty then it'd be time to consult your grammar text--good ones will let you know if there are options. Also: keep in mind that Word's grammar check, like its annoying pre-sets for formatting, reflects currently-accepted practices in business writing. Most of the time, that'll be fine, but just keep in mind that text does get written in places other than business and government offices these days.

Writing was invented, in part, to allow us to forget some things. That said, I agree with you that some have taken that purpose of writing to something of an extreme.

Cordelia said...

I had many deeper things to say about this, but at this advanced hour can only babble that you should get on Youtube and punch in Taylor Malik (he is a slam poet) and look for a video called "The Impotence of Proofreading," which is most funny if one edits/grades papers. He also has a most eloquent piece on modern diction (like, y'know, etc) which I have actually used at seminars when encouraging participants to find a voice. But "Impotence" is good enough for a good laugh.