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The Future Does Not Compute by Stephen L. Talbott

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Dancing with My Computer

This is Chapter 15 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

I write for a living -- painfully, line by line, word by word, endlessly revising under an intense compulsion until finally, by clarifying the words on paper, I succeed in clarifying my own thoughts. And it's true, some of the revising does occur on paper. But I quickly enter the edits on my computer, which is the primary venue for this excruciating “trial by composition.” I can scarcely imagine producing a lengthy manuscript on an old-fashioned typewriter -- every time my revisions got too thick on the pages, I'd have to retype the entire thing. With a computer, I simply enter the changes and print out a fresh copy of the whole. There's something reassuring about this prodigal issuance of clean drafts. After all, scribbling edits on top of edits on top of edits quickly becomes demoralizing -- not to mention illegible.

You might ask, however, whether by now I'd have gained a more disciplined mind if my writing tools were simpler. I might have less editing to do. Necessity would constrain me to think carefully first, and only then commit the words to paper. My thought processes would be more clearly detached from the automatic reflexes of my fingers.

Well, I'm not so sure .... The question troubles me. For the moment, I will let it pass. But it does usefully remind me of something else.

How to make music at the keyboard

Have you noticed the typing habits of computer engineers -- a great number of them, anyway? They type a sequence of characters in a convulsive burst, backspace through half of what they typed, then retype, pause, launch into another convulsive burst, backspace .... And so they create their software, lurching spasmodically from “if” to “then” to “else.” Nor is it just their fingers that betray this cramped style. The whole body picks up on the messages from the fingers, becoming tense, rigid, fixated. One can easily imagine this rigidity leaking into the psyche -- perhaps, in fact, we hear its faint overtones in many an email flame. More tangibly, there's the rash of carpal tunnel syndrome cases.

It is, of course, the obscenely compliant backspace key that encourages these habits. I, too, have suffered its consequences. But I've also wondered: can my computer, which echoes back and magnifies my nervous state with such maddening consistency, become thereby a kind of tutor leading me toward new inner disciplines? That is, if I listen to it with the right sort of alert detachment?

In particular, when I notice the deterioration of my typing, what is to prevent me from executing an about-face and approaching my keyboard like a pianist? Slow the pace down. Cultivate an easy, flowing, gentle rhythm. Relax. Let that graceful rhythm permeate my whole being. A bit silly, you say? Only if dancing to a Strauss waltz and to a jackhammer amount to pretty much the same thing. But I can vouch for the difference, for I have made exactly this experiment (not on the dance floor with piano and jackhammer, but with my computer), even if the trial is not yet anywhere near complete. It's taken two years to begin overcoming -- what? The sly temptations of the machine? Or the tendencies of my own organism? (Where is the line between me and my computer?) Whatever the case, there is no question that the Strauss approach is more fun.

Our changing relation to language

When it comes to email, a great percentage of Net users don't even bother with the backspace key. People who are fully capable of composing articulate, pleasing text are content when at their terminals to send off scruffy messages they would never commit to stationery. Messages riddled with grammatical errors, typos, non sequiturs. Given the pressure of our urgent schedules, the attempt to do better hardly seems justified.

It is undeniable that our relationship to our own words has gotten looser and looser -- just as it is well known that earlier peoples were bound much more intimately to language. Go far enough back, and the word exerts what now seems to us an almost magical influence. Word, thing, and self were bound together in a mystical unity. The penalty for blasphemy was not so much externally imposed as it was a direct inner experience of the disastrous consequence of one's own words.

The philologist Owen Barfield remarks somewhere that we can only begin to understand such otherwise incomprehensible events as the Inquisition by realizing that the medieval mind could scarcely distinguish between a man's words and beliefs on the one hand, and his innermost, essential being on the other. Language was participated in more fully, so that the distinction between speaking a monstrous untruth and being a monstrous untruth was nowhere near so clear-cut as it is today.

This is not to justify the Inquisition. Nor is it to say that we no longer participate in our language at all. When we speak, we still inhabit our words -- and they take possession of us, even if only in more external ways. This extends right down to the distinctive embodiment each syllable achieves within our physical speech apparatus. These formations, as gesture, extend throughout the entire body. (I've heard the claim made that, with fine enough observation, one can distinguish different ethnic groups by the ways they open a door or shake hands, because the spoken language lends a recognizably distinct character to all physical acts.) Even when we read silently or imagine someone speaking, our speech organs perform rudimentary, mimicking movements. Moreover, our dances to language begin early: researchers have found that the prenatal infant moves in rhythmic response to the words and sounds impinging upon the womb from outside.

Nevertheless, it's a long way from the Inquisition to the flame wars of the Net -- despite occasional outward similarities! The restraints have been lifted, our intimate connections to our own meanings have dissolved, and we find ourselves free to speak any conceivable words that occur to us, with little thought for the consequences. But the crucial thing about every freedom is what we do with it. Could it be that here, too, our computers are inviting us to undertake a new discipline?

Can we make words our own?

Let me draw a picture, however one-sided: I sit at my keyboard and produce all letters of the alphabet with the same, undifferentiated, unexpressive, purely percussive strokes. Words, phrases, endless streams of thought flow effortlessly from me in all directions, with so little inner participation that I have reached the opposite extreme from the ancient word -- self unity. I spew out my words easily, unthinkingly, at no psychic cost to myself, and launch them into a world already drowning in its own babble. The swelling torrent threatens to engulf every deeply considered word, every moment of attentive listening, every initiative emerging as a tender shoot from a timid heart. (Pity the unborn child who must dance to the frenetic tunelessness of this incessantly aggravating assault!) In too many of my words there is no serenity, no lucent depth of meaning, no set purpose -- but only the restless discharge of random surface energies. And as I produce my own words, so I will likely judge those of others, discounting them as the superficial disjecta membra they too often really are.

We are, perhaps above all else, creatures of language. What effect does it have on us when we immerse ourselves in a sea of cheapened words? On the few occasions when I have spent a couple of nonstop hours reading USENET newsgroups, I have found my head almost hurting -- a very different experience from, say, spending the same couple of hours reading a well-written book. A lot of this no doubt has to do with the difference between screen and paper, or between scanning and systematic reading. But some of it, I suspect, also has to do with the rootlessness and disorder of the words themselves.

This line of thought quickly threatens to become snobbery, so I had better make an end of it. But not before asking whether our computers, networks, and bulletin boards, by mirroring and magnifying certain of our tendencies, are pointing out something important to us. Just when our words have become so easy and careless, so loose and aimless, so wedded to superficial logic while detached from the persons conversing -- just, that is, when our words have become so computerlike -- it seems a good time to consider what model of the human speaker we would embrace. And if we finally come to declare for a new, inner discipline of words, our computers -- by faithfully magnifying our failures -- will act as worthy disciplinarians.

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