Quill or Computer? Makes No Difference


Item: Using an Apple Macintosh can lead to “sloppier writing and fluffier topics,” according to research by a University of Delaware writing instructor. Analysis of a random sample found that 30% of the Mac writers used complex sentences, compared to 50% of the IBM-clone writers.

Sentence length averaged 16.3 words for the Mac essays and 22.6 from those written on PCs. And the Kincaid Scale, a measure of readability, showed Mac users writing at the 8th-grade level versus 12th grade for the IBM clone group.

“Never before in 12 years of teaching had I seen such a sloppy bunch of papers,” wrote Delaware’s Marcia Peoples Halio in “Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?” “Words were misspelled; commas were placed haphazardly; semicolons were virtually non-existent or placed by means of ‘breath’ punctuation rules, and such fine points as quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks were treated with gay abandon.” The Mac’s format seems to “encourage a simple sentence structure and childish vocabulary. On the other hand, the papers that the Mac class turned in were often very creatively illustrated.”


Hey, wait a second! I use a Mac.

Are my sentences short? Sometimes. Is my vocabulary simple? Perhaps. Then again, my editors complain that some of my sentences spiral mindlessly into helixes of Byzantine complexity, painfully curling back into themselves like linguistic ingrown toenails; or, obese with polysyllabic verbiage culled from the darkest recesses of the Oxford English Dictionary, they run on and on--and then limp exhausted for a few phrases before collapsing into trivial conclusions no larger or more significant than the period at the end of this sentence.

But I digress.

Future study will no doubt reveal that the Macintosh is no more dangerous to the mental faculties of America’s youth than, say, heavy-metal music. However, the idea that our minds are somehow warped by our word processors is too intriguing to be ignored.

Back in the 1930s, an amateur linguist and insurance inspector named Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that our thought was shaped by our language; words were the molds and templates that determined the patterns in our minds. Whorf’s controversial thesis (and complementary work by philosopher/linguists Edmund Sapir and Ludwig Wittgenstein), has gained quite a following in intellectual circles.

Wouldn’t it also make sense that the tools we used to craft our words could subtly determine the quality of thought? Let’s look at this pragmatically: You would probably feel self-conscious if I made you write your next memo using a burnt sienna Crayola crayon. You might feel a bit more comfortable with a Royal Underwood manual typewriter--but not much. Suppose I made you write a love letter with your opposite hand?

The logic here is simple: Changing the strictures changes how you feel about writing something. How you feel about writing affects how you write. It doesn’t require a great intuitive leap to believe that changes in word-processing software would have a similar impact. I will never forget the time I criticized a best-selling word-processing program as too complex and user-hostile. I was deluged with angry mail from the program’s fans--but virtually all of it was handwritten. I bet none of those people gave it a second thought.

Where someone once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s work by describing it as “creative typing,” today we can dismiss texts by calling them “creative word processing.” Everyone who uses a word processor will confess, in their darker moments of self-doubt, that the technology has only marginal impact on the quality of their writing.

If you gave those million monkeys a million word processors instead of a million typewriters, you might get Shakespeare’s plays a heck of a lot faster, but you’d get even more gibberish. While the ability to play with and juggle text on screen is wonderful, the sad truth is that the stories that you read in this newspaper aren’t any crisper or better written because they were processed on IBMs, Macintoshes or whatever.

Indeed, some people argue that word processing technology makes the physical task of writing so much easier that some people toss self-discipline to the electrons and hedonistically indulge themselves by larding their prose with everything but the kitchen sink. Conversely, perfectionists turn into digital Flauberts, agonizing over the placement of a single comma.

But are we seeing how word processing technology seduces writers? Or are we really seeing how writers define themselves in terms of the technology they use? For example, the Delaware study ignores the possibility that those who chose Macs, easier machines to use, might be more cavalier about their studies.

To make an analogy, are people who speed in Porsches and Lamborghinis seduced by their cars or are they merely using their cars to indulge themselves? Obviously, Macintosh owners are somewhat different from IBM PC owners--or they’d own IBM PCs. Similarly, people who choose Buicks view personal transportation a bit differently than folks who drive red Corvettes.

Pop studies such as the University of Delaware’s do a nifty job of missing the point: More often than not, technology doesn’t “change” our personality or our thoughts--it merely highlights what was already there. Arguing that some computers corrupt expression more effectively than others isn’t silly--it just isn’t smart.

Of course, some computers lend themselves to certain forms of expression more easily than others. The point is that there has to be something there to express. The idea that Junior blames his C-minus in English on his WordPerfect software appeals to me; it’s more creative than saying that the dog ate the homework. Blaming technology for human shortcomings has a rich and honorable tradition going back to the days when Neanderthal philosophers argued that the invention of the wheel would encourage laziness and lead legs to atrophy.

Our experience with word-processing technology reveals that what we write is far more a reflection of who we are than the tools we use to write it. In other words, debates about word processing software, etc., are closer to intellectual exercise than they are to insights. Perhaps if I had written this on an IBM PC instead of a Macintosh, this argument would be more persuasive. Am I a victim of my tools?