4.1149 Technophobia Strikes Again (1/58)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 11 Mar 91 17:04:45 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 1149. Monday, 11 Mar 1991.

Date: Fri, 08 Mar 91 22:10:33 EST
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: technophobia from an unlikely hand

On the back page of the Times Literary Supplement 4586 (22 February
1991) is a remarkable article, "How computers can damage your prose", by
Edward Mendelson, professor of English and comparative literature at
Columbia University. Professor Mendelson has in the past distinguished
himself amongst computing humanists by his incisive wit, for example in
a very humorous attack on icon-and-menu besotted interfaces. In this
article, however, he is sour on the whole activity of writing by
computer, whether it be with the use of iconic interfaces or otherwise.
He extends his notion of the "PacMan factor" -- the degree to which a
computing system has adopted the manner of a game -- negatively to cover
the common operations of wordprocessing. The result (necessarily, he
seems to say) is bad writing.

The Macintosh -- he refers to Halio's article in Academic Computing,
January 1990, without naming the author -- predictably gets harsher
treatment that MS-DOS machines. "The degree to which a computer or
computer program, because it is enjoyable and exciting to use, distracts
the user from the task for which it is ostensibly designed may be
quantified as its PacMan factor. The programs with the highest PMF are
those that scintillate with icons, that encourage you to move through
your prose or issue commands by skating a plastic mouse across your desk
instead of using a keyboard.... The higher the PMF of a program, the
less probable it is that you will accomplish something by using it, and
the more probable that you will enjoy yourself while not accomplishing
it." Windows, he notes, brings MS-DOS users closer to the pit "but, on
the whole, IBM still lags behind Apple in its effort to prevent you from
working intelligently and effectively."

Ok, so he's deliberately pushing all the bottons he can find. What I
find remarkable about his article, however, is his absolutism. He
attacks "true believers in the benefits of the computer" by pointing to
the fatuous argument "that a computer is merely a tool, and that the
quality of the work produced with it depends on the worker, not on the
instrument." As he says, this makes sense "only to those who have
forgotten how to tell a paint-roller from a paint brush." Of course the
computer, like all tools when they are used over a period of time, is an
agent of perception. Simultaneously, however, Mendelson argues in effect
that we are powerless against the enfeebling effects of the machine --
his "PacMan factor". "The quality and intelligence of the prose written
on different computers correlates directly with the PacMan rating of the
computers themselves." Macs are bad but PCs aren't much better: about
the students whose writing Halio discussed he says, "No one seems to
have thought of offering any of these students a typewriter."

How dreary to read such things at this stage from such an articulate and
intelligent critic. When are we all going to realise that new devices
are never "mere tools" and that they never embody irresistible forces?
Since we invent them, they tell us something about ourselves and, if we
choose to use them, amplify the aspects of humanity they embody. How the
computer affects writing, and affects teaching and research as a whole,
is a difficult and fascinating question -- as yet unanswered. Professor
Mendelson's article perhaps can be said to help the rest of us towards
an answer by offering one so obviously foolish. Or, perhaps, he is
toying with us?

Willard McCarty