Tag Archives: writing

The Problem of “Complications”

Every refinement of software also creates more decision points. And with so many to choose from, its easy to get lost in the weeds, forfeiting the task it was originally designed to facilitate. 

Apparently, some people collect new and extraordinary watches that are mostly cherished for their finish and uniqueness. A small cadre of watchmakers cater to this unusual and expensive form of collecting, building timepieces that are especially valuable for including a “complication” that increases their uniqueness.  For example, a watch that shows something less obvious than moon phases might be prized.

Collecting these rare pieces is clearly a hobby for the rich, but it is also and useful analogy for the evolution of a lot of modern data and communication systems that we all use.

The arc of software development seems irrevocable:  from practical and simple to complex and esoteric. The compulsion for complications supposedly gives users more power.  Everything from Android Auto to the latest version of Windows “does more” by adding refinements and that require relearning features once easily mastered. Surely there is now a wristwatch that can be set to periodically extend a little hammer than will tap its owner on the wrist. What an ingenious complication, and how useless. I tend to have that reaction for version 10.3 of software that was far more focused and user-friendly when it was just version 2.3.

Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word is a good example. I have used it for years.  But each new iteration seems to move it just a bit further from being an efficient writer’s tool. After eight books I still can’t claim that I’ve mastered the “auto” functions, page layout options, and probably a hundred other complications. The blue ribbon above this Word page that I am writing will let add diagrams, charts, SmartArt, icons, 3D models, pictures, word art, add-ins, cross references, equations, watermarks, and so on.  But, of course, all of these features have to be formatted as well. I’ve easily spent a day formatting a single picture for a book. If putting together a bespoke magazine is in your future, Word has you covered. It has evolved a long way from being a blank slate to conveniently lay down and edit language. The assumption seems to be that somebody somewhere must clearly be waiting for the chance to drop in emojis, crossed out words, color charts, “wingdings”–whatever they are–not to mention five different shades of pink for the text.

Here’s the point.  It’s worth remembering that every refinement of a software function also creates more decision points. And with so many additions, its easy to get lost in the weeds of formatting and forget the core necessity of focusing on language use. Technical choices can move the sideshow of software settings into the spotlight as the main event, making the invention of creative sentences just an ancillary act.  I’ve seen this a lot with my students: submissions elaborately designed and badly written.

What we may need is a new theory of devolutionary development in the study of organizations to account for what is happening. Our tools don’t necessarily get better over time; many complications make them more difficult to efficiently use. I’ve heard more than a few say its easier to hop in their old truck to run a quick errand  than the family’s new car, whose two computers are said now to hold 100 million lines of code. Again, it’s the idea that the car’s displays give us too many decision points. Who has time to keep eyes on the road when there are screens with scores of settings that invite adjustment?

There’s an older theory of “media convergence” that predicts the merging of old media forms into hybrids:  radio programming based on recordings, or the merging of video and film production, or films that play like video games, or the modern smart phone that functions as a computer. But sometimes the early iteration of something is best.  One way to account for the small renaissance in vinyl records is that they were made to do one thing pretty well. They play two audio tracks sitting on the nineteenth century tool of a record turntable.  Sometimes we want the purity of the simpler thing.

Writing or Typing? It Seems to Matter

Edited notes of Walt Whitman– Library of Congress

Would Shakespeare’s prose scan differently if he had used Word?

In the Preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography Barack Obama observed that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he notes that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.” This is certainly a minority view these days, but this observation should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning only when we can see past the instant formalism of text in pixels. Compositing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he had the use of Word? And what about Walt Whitman? His crossed-out scribbles seen in early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase and edit.

And then there is the problem that some of us have that we cannot always read what we wrote. We need the help of a word processing program. The President probably did not have to transcribe his words into print. Others surely helped, and probably nudged a few errant nouns or verbs to their rightful places. But his point still stands.

 

We may not internalize ideas as well if we are typing them out.

One reason the choice of composition in longhand or at the keyboard is interesting is because we have some evidence that students are better notetakers if they are not using their laptops. Indeed, more university professors ban them from their classes, partly because of convincing research done at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere. These early studies suggest that we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are keying them in to a digital device.  The effects that play out here are a bit more subtle and complex, but we are generally more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page.

I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic differently than if we drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us anytime we try to reword or simplify it.

Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was–of all things–typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was not a problem, but this was a kind of dexterity more more akin to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.

Now, as I wrap up a book, I have a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.