The other day I received a telephone message from a young lawyer who is working on a research project for us in California. “I don’t have ready access to a computer anymore, so writing my report will be delayed.” Earlier, she was informed that I did not care how she produced her 100 page report — handwritten, typed or on a computer so long as the pages were legible.
Ten years ago, a similarly situated person would have used a typewriter and not thought anything of it. A draft would have been produced, edited with a pen or pencil and retyped in final form. But that was before the personal computer came along to give our national GNP a massive boost. Most typewriters were evicted from their stands and the square box, word processor took over.
This office machine makes it easier to correct for typographical mistakes and move paragraphs around. No dabs of white-out or erasures of typos on easy-to-erase bond paper are needed. Early in this decade, these word processors were a curiosity, then a convenience and then an addiction — all in a very short time. An addiction is something that the addict cannot do without. A word processor makes an addicted writer think that he or she can no longer write — first draft or final draft — without this machine.
Even more ambitious claims are made by these electronic addicts. They say they are more productive and can actually write better on these machines. Thus they transfer a convenience into a pre-requisite of thought. What a self-inflicted joke! I have never seen any evidence that anyone writes better and more because a machine is in front of them that erases and transposes easily, while it consumes electric energy and strains the writer’s eyes.
Word processors can be around fifty more years and the non-fiction and fiction they help put on paper will not compare with the literary genius of our forebears using the quill pen. No matter how fancy these machines become, they will not bring themselves any contemporary
writers closer to the quality of Dostoyevsky or the sheer output of Diderot and his huge, handwritten encyclopedia. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary while doubled up with lumbago in the attic. Thomas Paine wrote his historic polemics out of the inspiration of a driven mind. And so it goes.
Writing is not typing nor poking an easy word processor. Writing is thinking, inspiring, creating, refining and sweating. To persuade oneself that one cannot produce a written work without access to a personal computer is a self-indulgence whose fantasy exceeds that of thinking that one cannot walk without a car.
This user-fantasy leads to a dependency that presents markets for an ever alert personal computer software industry. Once users are hooked, the opportunities for marketing further delusionary “highs” are limitless. Now comes a disk called WritePro that pushes you to write novels.
A commentator prefaces a discussion of WritePro with these words: “The personal computer has made writing less difficult in certain crucial ways, but a blank monitor screen, it has been said, is just as blank as a blank sheet of paper. The writer still has to fill it up with words that someone else will want, and even pay, to read.”
Along comes WritePro which shows you how you can write fast-moving novels featuring the heroine, Elizabeth Reilly. It asks you to invent a character for her. Then it asks questions such as “What kind of clothes does she wear? How does she walk? What are her weaknesses?” The software program leads you through successive rewritings and reveals 28 “priceless tricks of the trade.” Which no doubt explains why the disk is selling for a mere $39.95.
Reliance on machines is accelerating without any critical stops, looks and listens. Young children cannot add or multiply because their calculator does it for them. Youngsters learning how to write don’t have to pause to compose the first draft more precisely and grammatically because the PC makes it so easy to correct. An lo! There is even a “spellcheck” program that will do it inside the computer instead of inside their heads.
If this continues, what will happen if the electricity ever goes out? Will there be any brains left to switch on?