Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

May 2003

Letter writing, telephones and television

I once bet a friend who was reading The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris that I could open it at any random page, as often as he wished, and find a piece of rampant nonsense. I won the bet, and he was a lawyer too!

I have recently been re-reading, in an evaluation of how we thought about the Internet and Web in earlier days, a number of books that criticised the Net or prophesised about how it would develop. One of them, a book from 1995 called Silicon Snake Oil by Chris Stoll gave me a similar Naked Ape feeling.

The book is essentially a critique of the use of computers. When I started reading it, I couldn't help agreeing with Stoll: yes, we must be realistic when approaching the possibilities of the Internet, and personal relationships are more important than anything that the Net can offer. But after about 50 pages, I got fed up with the constant complaints. It's one thing to be realistic, but it's quite another to be completely negative.

Let me open the book at random: "The president of a company can send an email to all employees of a company, but it doesn't have the effect of a visit to their offices or a heartfelt congratulation. I'd rather taste a scoop of homecooked fudge than be nineteenth on the list of recipients of some form letter".

Well, I'd rather receive one million units of currency than be poked in the eye with a sharp stick, but so what? I receive company-wide email too: I used to receive them as memos on paper. They're just as boring as they used to be, but now I know that they are electronically filed as well, so if I need to find one again I know where to look. And no trees get killed in the process either any more.

Here's another: He describes how one photographer is swimming against the tide and still using chemicals to develop real film. With loving detail he describes how the photographer moves the print being developed from chemical bath to chemical bath, and ends with the quote '"The romance and mystery is gone. Computer-processed images have no delicacy, no craftmanship, no substance, and no soul. No Love"'.

Well, I was a photographer in a former life, and I can tell you that all that stuff in the darkroom was just dull, rote, ecologically damaging – expensive – chemistry. The real art was in taking the picture, and in cropping it later. I had no love for the darkroom, then or now; digital photography allows me to do all that stuff in a normal room, with more control than I ever had then, and if I make a mistake, it costs me nothing.

Besides, the Chris Stoll of a hundred-odd years ago would surely have been complaining about the de-personalising effects of photography, how it was all just point-and-click, and how compared with painting there was no love or real craftmanship. The world changes; we adapt.

When I read Stoll's litany of complaints about the Net – the pretend-personal chat rooms, the bad spelling in emails – it reminded me of complaints that I have heard about the telephone in the past. How the telephone is destructive of the art of letter writing, and how terrible telephone chat lines are. Should we abolish telephones then? Of course not! Of course you'll never curl up in bed with a telephone call as you might with a letter, but I'd far rather hear the voice of a loved one who is far away, and be able to interact, than receive a letter from the same person, I honestly would.

But, I thought, why wasn't Stoll remarking on how wonderful it is that people have taken up the art of letter writing again, now that there is email? Apparently because he is offended by the spelling mistakes he comes across and uses this as evidence of the laxity created by the use of computers. Yet if we read the letters of Darwin's sister to Darwin during the voyages of the Beagle, one of her main points is to correct his spelling! Darwin! One of the greats of science! In other words, there is no correlation between spelling and the value of the content.

Sometimes Stoll notices his own contradictions. He complains on the one hand that word processors get used to add beautiful style to meaningless content, while on the other hand he complains about the sameness of emails.

He complains about how computers – hardware and software – go out of date so quickly, and then uses cars – cars! – as a demonstration of how technology doesn't have to go out of date so quickly: many of his friends are using ten-year-old cars, but no one in his circle is using ten-year-old computers.

A fundamental problem with Stoll's book is that it is just a litany of complaints, with no structuring of the types of problems, no separation of the symptoms from the disease. For instance, one of his complaints is the high cost of being connected. But all signs pointed then to that cost rapidly diminishing, and that has proved to be the case; but there is no way to tell from the book if once that problem has been solved if everything is then alright from Stoll's viewpoint.

There is no separation of types of problem, such as user interface problems, from other structural problems. One of the few sections of the book I enjoyed was his description of the computerisation of library catalogues. Apparently this is a process so popular amongst librarians that they hold parties when the catalogue gets put on computer, where they ritually burn or otherwise destroy the old paper-based catalogue.

Despite this, Stoll goes on to tell us that computerising card catalogues is actually a bad thing, and describes all the things you can do with a card catalogue that you can't do with a computerised one; and he's right, you can't do the things he describes. But all the problems he describes are due to poor implementation, where they haven't done a requirements analysis beforehand to see what users want and need from a catalogue: it's bad user interface. Doing the job badly is not a reason in itself for not doing it at all.

He complains about people spending hours behind a computer screen. As I write this I am sitting in Provence in southern France. This evening was beautifully warm. I cooked a delicious Provençal meal using locally grown vegetables and herbs bought from the market and took it out to the balcony to eat. The sun was setting behind the palm trees, and my meal was only disturbed by the sound of house martins screeching overhead as they flew about catching flies ... and by all my neighbours who were all without exception watching TV with the windows open, all of them watching a different channel.

If the zombies of the world want to stop watching TV and sit for hours behind a screen surfing the net, je m'en fou!

First published in ACM/Interactions, May 2003

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