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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 2
Diana McCarty on Thu, 4 Sep 1997 16:17:24 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Heim's Anxieties 2

  |                                                                   |
  |   Sound like criticisms for the sake of criticism?  Call me       |
  |   Glitch, Devil's Advocate, Worry Wart.  Maybe I'm a new          |
  |   computer virus, a WORM in the garden of Eden.  Let me           |
  |   make a confession, though, before I fill your screen with       |
  |   more anxieties.                                                 |
  |                                                                   |
  |   I approach the computer as a humanist.  I believe everyone      |
  |   here on <PC> probably does too. Humanists look for              |
  |   the human side of a technology.  They hope to find the          |
  |   intra-human use and capability of machines.  The people         |
  |   here rank CI ("collective intelligence" or "cotechnology")      |
  |   over AI ("artificial intelligence").  AI is good only if it     |
  |   promotes CI.  We are determined to learn how to connect         |
  |   with one another rather than see how smart machines can         |
  |   get.                                                            |
  |                                                                   |
  |   As humanists, we have a tradition.  Humanists have always       |
  |   sought to preserve the liveliest dimension of human             |
  |   communication.  In the face of Scholasticism, logical           |
  |   dogmatism, and scientific narrow-mindedness, the                |
  |   humanists have always encouraged the flow of deeply felt        |
  |   expressive language.  The main vehicle for humanistic           |
  |   language has been the printed book.                             |
  |                                                                   |

            Copyright (C) 1997, Michael Heim 

Reflections Part Two

    Reflections Reflections                        the
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections            on                   computer screen
    Reflections Reflections                        the
    Reflections Reflections Reflections

                                                by Michael Heim


3.1. Neither an OPTIMIST nor PESSIMIST be

I identify particularly with those thinkers loosely called
humanists.  By humanists I do not mean a sect of true believers
you might run into today under that label.  I mean simply
thinkers whose primary concern is the way humans interact with
the world.  Like Terrence's "Nihil humanum a me alienum puto."
In other words, I identify less with the scientists who try to
describe and explain the world than with the humanists who hone
the skills of reading texts.  Humanists were always notorious for
their meticulous care in preserving and interpreting written

Humanists are neither optimists nor pessimists about
technology, neither Luddites nor technophobes.  Whether the
glass is half-empty or half-full, the humanist is interested in the
substance of its contents.  This is a soft determinism, which
accepts our human destiny while studying the different ways to
absorb its impact.

Most of the inventors of the computer were utopians, not
humanists.  They  believed the computer could propel us into a
perfectly ordered society.  The dystopians arose as a reaction. 
The dystopians ridiculed the hope of a perfectly orderly world
utopian world.  They pointing to the perfectly horrid world that
could come about if we installed computers everywhere.  The
humanistic view, neither utopian nor dystopian, is in a position
to look at the both pros and cons.

Computerized writing is part of our destiny.  Each epoch has its
love affair, its grand passion, an enthusiasm that gives it
distinction. Pyramids or cathedrals do not distinguish us and
shopping malls will never last.  Ours is not the age of faith or
reason but the age of information.  Madness, Plato reminds us, is
ambivalent; it can be divine or insane, inspired or crackpot. 
Lovers, inventors, and artists are maniacs. So are computer
enthusiasts.  For infomaniacs, computers are not merely tools.

Because we are still pioneering with computers, we all tend to be
enthusiasts.  It's tough to be philosophical.  To participate you
almost have to take sides, become a partisan.  You have to invest
much of your time, which means you soon have a vested
interest, a definite commitment.  As a partisan, you become
enthusiastically positive or decidedly negative. You cannot 
straddle the fence.  We must struggle to be philosophical.  I want
to examine computers as they affect  our cultural lives.  I want
to understand the principles according  to which they change
our cultural life.

One of the best ways to straddle the fence of past and future is
to keep an eye on books.  Books have always functioned as an
important gauge of humanism.  In every social transition, our
written symbols have changed dramatically.  The oral repetition
of information began in rhythmic songs and visually-oriented
epic poems.  Memory then went to stone and chisel, papyrus and
stylus, manuscript and pen, the printing press, paper and
typewriter, and now the computer.  All have given mental
leverage and fueled power for social change.


In the 1980s, we saw the desktop computer replacing the
bookshelf as the badge of expertise.  But computers in the 80s
still functioned as all- purpose machines.  We treated them as
calculators which could also serve the written word.  Just as the
notion of a "horseless carriage" concealed the impact of the
automobile, so too the "word processor" hid the reality of digital
text.  Word-processing software fooled us into seeing electronic
"pages" and laser "printers."  Now, in the 1990s, we are just
beginning to surmise the true nature of the beast.

On-line computer conferencing -- what shall we call it? Email?
Cotechnology?  -- shows the radically new side of digital
writing.  So does hypertext.  Digital text differs radically from
printed pages.  Freed from book metaphors, the digital writing
challenges our traditional notions of reading, knowing, and

Paul Levinson, who runs a computer-mediated M.A. program at the
New School, wrote a book on the "electronic liberation of text"
by the computer.  (The book is MIND AT LARGE, Jai Press, 1988).
He is correct to point out there is a new perspective on written
symbols in the electronic element.  Text is no longer bound to
the slow, costly, and tightly controlled print medium.  But every
liberation from limitations also implies an underlying chaos of
confusion until a new order arises.  Every meaningful order
requires limitations.  Every liberation must be consolidated.
The limitations of any given order help channel our expectations.
As text becomes free of paper-material constraint, writing in its
past modes appears more vividly as something limited but
eminently worthwhile, a vessel of concentrated human energy.

Future bookpeople may take their cue from the 16th-century
monastics. In the shadow of Gutenberg, they defended the
continued production of hand-copied manuscripts.  Future
bookmakers might borrow, mutatis mutandis, some pages from
Tritemius (1462-1516):

"He who abandons copying books by hand because of the
invention of printing is no real friend of sacred writing.  He
sees only what is current and contributes nothing to inspire
future generations.  But we, beloved brothers, shall keep in mind
the rewards of this sacred occupation and not slacken in our
effort.  Printed books will never equal handwritten texts. 
Printed books often lack a fine appearance.  Above all, copying
books by hand involves personal commitment and diligence. 
Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds
since we have to take our time while writing and reading.  The
printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly
disappear.  But the scribe writing on parchment ensures a lasting
remembrance of himself and his text.  All of you know the
difference between a true manuscript and a printed book: Words
inscribed on parchment will last a thousand years.  Words
printed on paper -- how long will they last?  At most, two
hundred years.  Still, many people think they can entrust their
works to paper.  Only time will tell."

(from IN PRAISE OF SCRIBES by Johannes Tritemius).

Tritemius was an early Renaissance humanist and Benedictine
Abbot at Wuerzburg (see ELECTRIC LANGUAGE, pp. 177ff). 
He tried to sum up the unique values of copying manuscripts by
hand at a time when the printing press was just about to make
hand-crafted books obsolete.

Will electronic texts completely replace books?  Maybe, maybe
not.  But one thing is certain.  Electronic texts will play an ever
greater role in our culture.  Furthermore, just as writing and
then printing accompanied vast shifts in cultural energy,
electronic writing signals a new set of priorities.

In section 8 below (The THROW-AWAY CULTURE), I cite a
student editorial that recognizes the fundamental shift
accompanying the rise of digital text.  The way I characterized
this shift in ELECTRIC LANGUAGE is a shift from
contemplative to information-based thought.

     3.3. The MAC-VERSUS-THE-PC debate      

Among humanistic circles, a whirl of debate arose recently from
an article in a computer journal.  The journal was ACADEMIC  
COMPUTING and it carried an article entitled "Student Writing:
Can the Machine Maim the Message?"  The article, written by
Marcia Peoples Halio, examined student writing in the MS-DOS
and compared it to writing in the Macintosh environment, (January
1990, pp. 16-19 & 45).  Halio concluded that students' writing
showed a significant drop in quality when the students used Apple
computers instead of the IBMs.

Her results were based on 1,000 students taking English
Composition at the University of Delaware.  Writing differed
dramatically depending upon whether the students used an IBM
or a Macintosh microcomputer.  To evaluate the writing, Halio
ran 20 essays by the students through a set of programs called
VAX mainframe at the University of Delaware.  The analysis
showed striking results.  The Mac students were writing far
fewer complex sentences than the IBMers (30 percent compared
to 49.5 percent).  They were also using many more "to be" verbs
(32 percent compared to 23 percent), a sign according to
composition theorists of weak and lifeless prose.  Readability
scores (as judged by the Kincaid scale) averaged 12.1 (college
level) for the IBM students, but the Mac users obtained a score
of only 7.95 (slightly less than 8th grade).  Closely tied to the
readability scores was the measure of sentence length: an
average of 16.3 words for the Mac students and 22.6 for the IBM
students.  And the Mac students -- much more than the IBM
students -- used the subject of their sentences as the sentence
opener (80 percent Mac; 66.5 percent IBM).  Teachers know that
weak writers generally rely on subject openers, while more
sophisticated writers employ more varied openers.  Finally, the
Mac students were noticeably poorer proofreaders than the
IBMers, averaging fifteen misspellings per essay, compared to
four for the IBMers.

Soon after this article was published, a fierce partisan debate
arose about the research. If previously there was an antipathy
between Big Blue buffs and Mac hackers, now there was all-out
war.  A certain amount of brand loyalty belongs to a consumer
cultures like ours.  But with something so intimate as the
personal computer, the debate raged like a Holy War -- especially
among humanists (the first debates I saw emerged on the HUMANIST
forum on Bitnet).  For humanists, the quality issue is paramount,
and no amount of increased productivity or social networking will
solace them for a loss in quality.  What is quality?  Don't our
standards change over time regarding what is cognitively
respectable?  If one type of computer interface breeds a
different quality, might not the use of digital word processing
in general change the quality of human writing?

Beneath the current debate runs an even deeper issue.  Could
Halio's findings about the MAC versus the PC suggest an even more
far-reaching impact of computerized writing technology? Might it
be that word processing affects the way we think and write?  This
was the speculative claim made in the book ELECTRIC LANGUAGE.

|                                                                        |
|   Glitch here again.  Am I an intruder, like that kid on block         |
|   who always said the new toys were flawed?  -- And this               |
|   technology is our new toy.  We do PLAY with the computer             |
|   technology -- even though we may not consciously think of what       |
|   we do as recreation.  Our playful immersion signals a deep inner     |
|   affinity to the technology.   It attaches to our minds, becomes      |
|   part of our subconscious vocabulary of movements and gestures,       |
|   part of our feel for the world.                                      |
|                                                                        |
|   Being a glitch removes you from the inevitable partisanship we       |
|   all feel who use the technology.  To be a pioneer, you have to be    |
|   blindly attached, courageously dedicated to making it work.          |
|   Most people on Bitnet share strong partison pride in their           |
|   attitude toward computer text.  And they should.  What else can      |
|   you expect from the pioneer spirit?  I must admit that my first      |
|   two years of portable computing were outstanding.  There was a       |
|   thrill in installing the computer into my life.  I knew it would     |
|   be making major changes in my life, and I delighted in it --         |
|   even though I often missed my appointments while deeply              |
|   engrossed in working out the bugs in my calendar/appointment         |
|   program (written in BASIC on a Radio Shack Model 100).               |
|                                                                        |
|   I am not an expert in computer technology.  I am a user.  My         |
|   anxieties are user-friendly.  Many of you will recognize my          |
|   complaints and worries as something you have already faced.          |
|   Maybe you have already found a way to cope with the anxiety I        |
|   describe or have at least found a philosophical angle from which     |
|   to view what vexes me.                                               |
|                                                                        |

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