Multiplication Effect

When I submitted my first stories to F&SF magazines in the dark ages before computers, or even word processors, manuscripts had to be typed, double-spaced, and be largely error-free. Back then, I was a decent typist, but not a great one, and even with Wite-Out [a liquid paper correcting fluid], I had to retype more pages than I ever wanted to count. But that need not to make mistakes made me much more careful.

Even so, with a typewriter I was much more fortunate than the novelists of the late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, who had to handwrite their manuscripts – and to do so in clear enough penmanship so that their words could be understood by the editor and the typesetter. The limits of technology required people to be much more painstaking, because the costs and the time required for redoing were much higher.

This example applies to all technology. I’ve run across clerks who can’t see at a glance that what they punched into the computerized terminal came out wrong, because no one “needs” to know addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables – or numerical estimation. Several years ago, when my publisher went to a new system, it took over two took years to get certain royalty statements unscrambled, even though I spelled out what was wrong and how to fix it out in detail within days of discovering the errors.

When my publisher went to convert older novels into ebooks, they used optical scanners and were sloppy about the proofreading. I still get emails complaining about the typos in those conversions… and some of those messages are anything but complimentary.

The university where my wife the professor teaches shortened the semester by two weeks. It was all programmed out – except that no one clearly looked into the implications because there’s no time in the schedule to conduct juries [applied musical skill performance tests]. Nor are there any performance spaces available. At present, the powers that be haven’t come up with a solution, but when they do I can guarantee that it will cause a fair amount of disruption… and likely take more time and effort than doing it right in the first place would have.

As I’ve said before, technology doesn’t automatically make anything better. What it does do is multiply what people do. If they’re good and conscientious, it allows them to do more good work. If they’re careless and sloppy… well, it multiplies the sloppiness as well… often to the point that even technology can’t easily remedy the mess… which is something that all too many technophiles want to ignore or overlook.

8 thoughts on “Multiplication Effect”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    When I pay cash at a register, if I don’t have exact change, I sometimes go a bit beyond the number of $20’s and $10’s needed, to reduce the number of bills or coins I get back; in particular, I’d rather give extra one or two $1’s and get a $5 back rather than getting three or four $1’s; similarly with coins.

    Having been just barely too old for pocket calculators in high school, and remembering how change was counted out before cash registers figured it automatically, that’s easy for me. But except for some older adults, and some younger kids at an Amish market that know how to do mental arithmetic, it confuses most cashiers.

    On the other hand, I remember my mom telling me about primitive systems programmed with patch panels (replaceable panels with a bunch of jumpers on them); and way back, I even did my share of punched cards myself. The summer after I graduated, my high school got a minicomputer; two Teletype terminals with paper tape readers/punches. When it crashed, it took a good 45 minutes to reload. Preparation for work later I guess, when it took a couple of hours of flipping mag tapes to reload backups if a removable 300MB disk (the drive the size of a washing machine) was damaged on one of the systems I ran at work then.

    Nowadays I have lots of the latest smart gadgets, and use them effectively. But it sure helps understanding them to have seen and have some familiarity with much of the history behind them. 🙂

  2. Daze says:

    My wife’s university went to a system where all of the undergraduates had to submit their course requests at the start of the academic year (January in Australia) online. They have 40,000 students who might need to look at several courses each. Unsurprisingly, to me at least, they hadn’t flood-tested the system and it fell over catastrophically early on the first day. So no students were registered for any courses by the time the courses started, as they no longer had the staff to go back to the previous system …

  3. John Prigent says:

    I’ve had a new system inflicted upon me for odrering my repeat heart-drug prescriptions. It used to need just my name, d.o.b. and patient number. Now it insists on having a password as well – but to your password is sent by text message to your mobile phone. I don’t have a mobile phone! So I asked why it couldn’t be sent to my email address. The answer was that email is considered insecure. But if I had that password I could renew my prescription by sending – you guessed it – an email!

    1. Tim says:

      John. Online banking could be a real problem soon without a mobile phone. Once I decided to use my mobile for online banking I was no longer able to log on at a PC without having a code which could only be generated from the application program on my mobile phone. I am tempted to never take my mobile anywhere in case I lose it!

      1. John Prigent says:

        Good point, Tim. Which is why I have told my bank that (a) I will never use online banking, and (b) if anyone tries to log in as me they are dealing with an attempt at fraud.

  4. Lourain says:

    “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates

    I taught in high school for many years. Technology changes…people don’t.

    1. While people don’t change, technology multiplies what they do, both for good and for evil.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Not only is the effect multiplied, the rapidity at which data can now go in, the shortening of the decision-making cycle with what to do with the data (i.e. less time to make decisions because of a variety of pressures), and the rising information overload with ever low signal-to-noise ratios…. why is it surprising that “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is the norm?

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