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 And soon the Word 97 document format will be out of date, and so one will have to buy another piece of bloated software, and learn to use it all over again.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!