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Lazy thinking and computers

Sept 24: The art of handwriting is acknowledged to have been sacrificed at the altar of the keyboard. It is possible that now, the capacity for structured thought is also being affected by computers.

Consider this: in the days of typewriters and before, we had to learn our spellings because that was easier than consulting a dictionary every time we were stuck on, say, how many time the letter 'u' appeared in 'queue.' A good memory was doubly important since the dictionary was not a couple of google searches away; the document did not point out an error by inserting a squiggly red line and a right click did not automatically fix the problem.

Furthermore, correcting a mistake constituted, at best, fiddling around with white-out fluids and at worst, retyping the entire document. The pre-computer generation learnt the correct usage of punctuation since altering them once they had been recorded was not a matter to be laughed off lightly. Similarly, in the absence of grammar checks, one had to know the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment.

In the age before computers allowed us to cut, paste, replace and track changes with gleeful abandon, we had to think clearly about what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. Before embarking upon the task of committing anything to paper, we had to pause to marshal our thoughts and assemble the argument in a logical manner. In the pre-computer age, in fact, we learnt to think two steps in advance, to calculate where the sentence was going and what the follow-through was going to be.

The capacity to think in a structured manner is of particular importance in the print media since the field is bound by severe deadline pressures. An inability to put information in a sequential order means that more time will be spent in actually writing up the report.

The many computer tools available to the sub-editor also allow the writer to be somewhat slip-shod about the submission. In the tech age, it is not unusual for a sub-editor to dramatically re-word or even re-write a piece, simply because his computer allows him to rapidly move paragraphs and sentences around, replace hackneyed words with synonyms and run an instant word count or spell check. Even the basic fact checking can be accomplished by running a quick internet search.

Before such facilities were available, the sub-editor simply did not have the time to rework any document to such an extent. As a result, the writer was expected to have high levels of proficiency over language, writing and logical reasoning.

The same argument that computers allow lazy thinking is also true of the electronic media. Today, footage is dumped on to a computer after which the editing process is roughly similar to the manner in which words are edited on, say, Microsoft Word. The non-linear video editor can split the continuous recorded images into their constituent frames and then shuffle them. The audio track can be separated, extra tracks can be layered on and any mistakes can easily be rectified without generation loss. Released of the need to work sequentially, the editor can jump back and forth, change the introduction to suit the end, trim or expand in order to meet the programme's required duration.

Just a few years ago, all the editing was linear. The editor worked with Beta tapes of the original footage and recorded chunks sequentially onto a new tape. If he got it wrong, he would have to start all over again. And most problematically, Beta tapes suffered generation loss - the picture and sound quality was affected by the number of times the tape had been played or re-recorded. As a result, an editor worth his salt would assemble most of the programme in his mind before even sitting down at the machine.

Computers have made our lives easier, no doubt about it. But user-friendly technology has also made it all a little too easy. Machines are turning us into lazy thinkers.
By Hajrah Mumtaz (hmumtaz@dawn.com)
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