The Way We Think Computer

October 23, 1996
Engl 354

Our society places a heavy importance on technology and its jargon. It seems like every day a new term is developed or some new technology-based fad erupts. This mania is described within Michael Heim’s article, “Infomania” which shows us what the negative effects of the word processing revolution are to English. There are two ways that this revolution has changed the English language. First, it helped to create an explosion of new words to the language to define the new technology. Secondly, word processors modify and deconstruct the way we think and write English because of our attempts to adapt to these machines.

We have learned that the creation of new words, by definition, is what keeps English (as well as other languages) alive. The addition of new words can either add to the language’s capacity to communicate or it can take away. For example, before the invention of the World Wide Web words and labels such as the information superhighway, home page, and netsurfing never existed. Yet today, when we refer to the Web, www, or even a dot (.) most people understand what the denotations of these words as they relate to the machines. For, the addition (or redefinition) of these words help to define some of these new computer processes and what their effects on society are. However, when separated from their technical context these words elicit different responses and have different meanings. Heim sees this usage of language mania as one of the factors that help to erode our capacity to deliver significance in what we write.

There are two myths that word processing creates. The first is that word processors allow us to write more proficiently and productively. According to Heim this belief is false and the opposite is true. It was thought that with the development of the word processor that these machines “could amplify mental powers and increase our command over language” (Heim 301). Instead of allowing us to become more proficient in our organizational skills, however, word processors have allowed us to become sloppier and more disjointed in our writing style. This occurs because the computer allows us to type more keys per minute while thinking minimally and this in turn creates more spelling errors and typing errors. Quality is surpassed for quantity and to Heim, the only people who are becoming proficient writers are the editors who do the majority of the rewriting by shifting through all the unchecked
errors and replacing words that have been left out during the speedy typing (302).

I agree to what Heim says in his article about this first myth. The word processor in its purest ideal was created to simplify writing and editing. It is true that word processing allows us to write more. As a matter of fact it is because of the word processor’s invention that “writers grow prolix, with manuscripts bloated to twice normal size” (Heim 300). Yet, despite the growth in the amount of pages writers are putting out there is still no conclusive evidence that says we are getting better at writing. While there is certainly evidence (in Heim’s article) that we are growing poorer in our command of the language. However I also believe that our romantic maniac obsession with the computer can also be attributed to the fact that we try to make the machines do something that they cannot do– think and write our papers and literature for us.

Why the word processor contributes to the poor quality of our writing today can be explained by the fact that instead of teaching us how to write a better argument from the beginning to end, word processing allows us the luxury to draft what we want to say starting at any point. “Digital writing is nearly frictionless [it is a lot easier to do]. You don’t have to consider whether you are writing the beginning, middle or end of your text.” (Heim 302). In turn, it allows us to be held less accountable for spelling or grammar mistakes because there are additional functions built in that can clear up these problems without our even knowing or caring, even if these functions are not correct in their assessment of these so called errors. “This power at you fingertips tempts you to believe that faster is better, that ease means instant quality” (Heim 302) when in fact it causes more problems. For example, if a word is misspelled but the misspelling forms another word (ie. from to form) the checker will miss it because the word registers on its vocabulary lists, yet grammatically it turns the sentence into gibberish.

We, also seem to have developed a more aggressive editing style that can be done instantly on screen because of the free-form style of writing (Heim 302). By allowing us to draft and redraft an essay mindlessly without thinking about where arguments really needs to be strengthened while leaving out words that are needed to compose sentences properly Heim suggests that this adds to the poorer quality of prose today. “Yet company reports do not seem to get better after thirty drafts” and because editors rewrite and suggest new drafts to the writers, the writers “are becoming data entry clerks” (Heim 302). Everything discussed above, the changes that the machines have created in the ways we way we formulate and process English, have in turn also seeped into the way we create literature.

The idea of technology invading our home is not a new concept. We have technology that invades every aspect of our daily routines; like the dish and clothes washers. However, none of these products have affected the way we speak, talk, or think. Heim believes that the word processor revolution has done exactly this and this effect on how the word processor helps us create better literature becomes the second myth. He states that “when a technology touches our language, it touches us where we live” (Heim 304). This statement reflects Heim’s beliefs as to the changes that the word processor revolution is creating within our literature. For, it is true that word processing and computers make writers more proliferate and help us to extrapolate connections between our perceptions of reality and the final product; but, it cannot replace the structure of how literature conveys meanings or the meanings themselves, through the written language.

Today’s society is permeated with thoughts, words and cultural traits that have developed because of the development of the word processor which has created another link between the word processor and our writing process. It has created “a growing obsession with data without a concern for significance” (Heim 305). Heim sees literature throughout this revolution as being postmodern in nature, because the computer allows for a more stream-of-consciousness approach to writing which causes the text to be more disjointed. Many writings are written in a postmodern style that leaves out important connections that need to be said, and sometimes these pieces of literature even consider the format and font that the literature is written in as being as powerful or even more powerful than the meanings within the texts themselves.

The word processor revolution has made many improvements within our society. They allow us to produce more information in less time while spreading it over a larger area. It is inevitable that because of the technology, it would also impact the way we write and think. Heim’s article makes us stop and take a look at how this easier technology is affecting our writing, literature and culture.

Mania is a disease the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a mental derangement characterized by great excitement, extravagant delusions and hallucinations, and, in its acute stage, by great violence” (vol. 9 312). This definition applies to Heim’s article not only in relation to the explosion and abuse of words that developed during the word processor revolution but in the ways that it “erodes our capacity for significance” (Heim 306).For, we have become maniac in our own beliefs on what the machines can do for us and to improve our language. The creation and addition of new words to our language is in itself not a bad thing, but when these words are overused and abused they lose all meaning. Likewise, typing faster and more in itself is not a bad thing, but when done without thinking first of what needs to be written and how the audience is going to react then it becomes less significant and meaningful. Computers do make things easier, yet it is ultimately up to us to decide how computers are going to affect us and our language. Will it make us stronger or will it change English past the point of being considered literate (by today’s standards)? That decision, time can only tell; we can only push it along certain paths we feel builds a better language.