26 July 2007

The cult of information: computers and civilization

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote in my journal
I got a book from the library called "The cult of information" and began reading it. It is a kind of antidote to Toffler's "The third wave", and pointed out the danger of confusing the quantity of information with quality, and information processing with thinking.

It is true that there is a fascination with computers that goes beyond their usefulness. A computer gives one access to lots of information that one could not otherwise obtain, but when one actually gets it, it is often banal and not worth having. A computer can make the task of writing easier, but one needs to have
something to say in the first place and one of my great fears is that, having better tools for writing, I actually have nothing to say. Like John Aitchison, I seem to have said it all, and to have nothing left. The tools should free one for creative writing, but they seem to inhibit it.

That was my journal entry for 5 September 1988, and the book referred to was The cult of information : the folklore of computers and the true art of thinking by Theodore Roszak.

And what I didn't reckon with back then, at least not so much as today, was that I would have to spend quite so much time learning to write. I learnt to write at the age of 5, to ride a bicycle at the age of 6, and those skills stayed with me. I can pick up pen and paper and write now.

Word processors were supposed to make writing tasks easier. Back then I used XyWrite, a word processor that is still unsurpassed at its primary task of processing words, especially since in those days computer keyboards were ergonomically designed with function keys on the left, so editing a document was a breeze. XyWrite fitted on a single floppy disk - not a stiffie, a floppy, a 5.25 inch doublesided disk that held 360k. But it had better functionality than the bloated multimegabyte word processors of today. And it ran faster on an 8 MHz computer running under MS DOS 3.2 than it does under Windows XP on a 2 Ghz machine.

I still use XyWrite every day, but for documents I want to share with others I use MS Word, which has more bells and whistles, takes up a lot more disk space, and is much more clumsy and difficult to use to process words. And soon the Word 97 document format will be out of date, and so one will have to buy another piece of bloated software, and learn to use it all over again.

Computers give one tools for saving time, but they waste as much time or more that must be spent in relearning to use the tools all over again. If only it was as easy as jumping on a bike!


Sam Charles Norton said...

Is XYwrite available as a download anywhere? I've recently switched to openoffice - first step in a process of ridding myself of MS crap - but it has one or two really annoying quirks. I'm wondering how much computer is actually needed these days (looking at the $100 laptop, and the principles behind that)

phathu said...

The interesting thing is that if you read books on computer usability you will find that the new software is supposed to be more usable than the old stuff. In theory its not supposed to be like riding a bike, its supposed to be even easier.

unfortunately computers will keep changing, even as an individual working in IT i sometimes struggle to keep up.

Steve Hayes said...

REv Sam,

XyWrite was originally produced by XyQuest, of Billerica, Massachusetts. The engine was also used by Dragonfly Software for Nota Bene, an academic word processor, which was the first that could produce text in columns with say, English, Greek and Hebrew on the same page.

XyWrite was taken by IBM to replace their clunky DisplayWrite, but their version, Signature, was a disaster, and effectively crippled XyWrite. Eventually XyQuest took it back and released XyWrite IV, but the damage had been done and they lost market share.

I have XyWrite II+ and still use it, but because it is a DOS program you can't print from it in windows printers. So if I want hard copy I have to convert the document to XyWrite IV, save it as RTF, and import it into MS Word or another Windows word processor. I mainly use it for editing HTML documents, or longer pieces I'm writing for e-mail and want to formal -- the kind of stuff most people use Notepad for.

A Google search might reveal if it is still available, if you wouild like it.

It was, and is still, the best wotrd processor -- that is, for processing text, although modern ergonomically-impaired keybords with the function keys on top slow it down. When using redlining (which MS word has variously called revision marking, track changes, and for all I know something else) it lets you delete deleted text and so restore the original, which Word, 20 years later, still can't do.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, and Windows software is supposed to be easier to learn because of a standardised command set e.g. Ctrl C for copy, Ctrl V for paste etc.

I learnt to use Paradox, which was supposed to make relational databases easy. But when its object oriented version was released, all scripts broke, and one would have to learn to use the new version before one could convert them. Mow it's MS Access, but before you've learnt one version, a new one has been released.

For IT people, it's their job, learning new versions. But other people, who just want to keep a database, or write stuff, life's too short to stop productive work while you relearn everything. It is like having to write with a pen when learning a new alphabet every three years or so.


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