Thoughts on Writing and Technology

When I was writing an earlier blog, I ran it through the spell and grammar checker, and the grammar checker came up with three errors that weren’t, and suggested three very ungrammatical fixes. At first, I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that I’d used a complex sentence structure with parallel subordinate clauses. Now, I obviously have nothing against technology per se, but this incident got me to thinking about the implications… and to a writer like me, those implications are between annoying and frightening.

It’s clear that the software doesn’t work nearly so well with complex phrases. Is that because it’s not worth while to design it to that level of complexity? Or that it can’t be? Either way, the end result isn’t good, because it’s applying simple rules to complex phrases, and that’s one of the biggest problems with most technology, especially when the user understands neither the entire field in question nor the limits of the technology. But, as in the case of word-processing software, technology often allows the marginally competent to look like the competent — until something really goes wrong.

These days, more and more young writers are relying on software to clean up their work, and every time I read manuscripts for a contest [which I do upon occasion] I’m reminded of this… and the fact that very few of them truly understand their native language.

Another problem that plagues me is the autoformatting feature of Word, especially when I have to go back three lines and put in a hard return so that I don’t end up with an after-the-fact indented paragraph. I mean, after all, I didn’t indent that paragraph when I typed it out. The software all of a sudden undid — or redid — what I did because I didn’t conform to its programming. This is a recurring problem with all computer-based systems. They do what you tell them to do, not what you intended to do, and, sometimes, they even do something that you had no idea they could do, and that you certainly didn’t plan on. The problems begin when there are features you don’t know are incorporated in the system. You think you’ve told the system to do one thing, but your instructions are reformulated by the system. This is an annoyance in word-processing, but it can be a disaster, as in the case of the Mars probe that crashed because there were conflicting measurement systems programmed into the navigation systems, systems of which some of the scientists programming the deceleration were unaware.

And, of course, just about the time I’ve finally worked through and understand most of the glitches in a system, some hot-shot programmers and profit-motivated executives re-design the software… and before all that long I’ll be forced to learn another new and improved system with unknown quirks or glitches, whether I want to or not, because sooner or later, things like the latest printers don’t have printer-drivers for the old software, and because I tend to burn through printers, that limits my choices. And that irritates me, especially since “new” is often not better. I can count on it to be more complex, but not necessarily better, and certainly not simpler… and that’s unfortunately true of most technology.