From the editor: The beauty of—and the trouble with—technology

James E. Mattson | 05/08/2017

From a writer’s point of view.

Image of writer's penI’m thankful for technology, though not always an early adopter of it. My slowness in purchasing an eight-track tape player caused me to miss that phase of magnetic sound reproduction altogether, an omission I’ve never regretted. I didn’t buy a videocassette recorder, either, though employed during its heyday by a company well-known for magnetic tape products.

Still, I’m fascinated by technology. In fact, I’ve written a biographic history, available in most university and health science libraries, about nuclear magnetic resonance and its technological derivative, MRI. As a writer, I’m loyal to my Mac, and although I admire an elegant fountain pen and appreciate any writing instrument that works well, I don’t consider it sacrilege to compose on a computer.

James MattsonThey don’t call it longhand for nothing
When it comes to writing longhand, I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. If I’m taking notes, I try to capture information as quickly as possible without great concern for appearance. But if I’m actually writing something in longhand, my perfectionism kicks in, and I’m inclined to start over if I make too many errors that mar the visual appearance of what I’ve written. My fussiness gets in the way of my creativity. That’s what’s beautiful about computer-aided writing. Highlight unsatisfactory text, press return or delete, and—voilà—it’s gone! You retain the progress you’ve made, your errors vanish, and you have a clean sheet of “paper” ahead of you. That’s writer’s grace. I’m thankful for technology!

They didn’t have computers in 1776, so you have to give credit to John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States. He insisted that Thomas Jefferson draft the U.S. Declaration of Independence, telling him, “You can write ten times better than I can.” Thank you, John Adams! Jefferson accepted the challenge and did a great job, content-wise, although King George III of England didn’t care for it all that much. But Jefferson didn’t pen the Declaration of Independence we view in the National Archives Museum. He knew his limits. They think Timothy Matlack of Pennsylvania did that. If it had been me, writing longhand with a quill pen and working against a deadline—the Fourth of July was right around the corner, you know—the colonies would still be under British rule.

Slow writer ahead
Not everyone agrees with my views about technology and writing. Quentin Tarantino, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, George Clooney, and Jhumpa Lahiri all prefer longhand. More power to ’em, but the way I look at it, when words are coming fast and furious, why put a thought-slowing, word-stalling, hand-cramping bottleneck in front of them? Actually, I consider the debate rather silly. Suggesting that the best way to write is in longhand is like a right-handed person telling a left-handed person that he or she should use the other hand. Bottom line? Whatever works for you.

For those who do embrace computer-aided writing, not everyone agrees with me on that, either. George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, from which the HBO series “A Game of Thrones” is adapted, uses a DOS-based word processor and WordStar software. Danielle Steele, author of more than 100 best-selling novels, has written all of them on a 1946 Olympia manual typewriter. And P.J. O’Rourke, political satirist and journalist, prefers writing with an IBM Selectric. (For those born after 1986, that’s an electric typewriter.) This electromechanical wonder that uses a golf ball-sized, whirling dervish of a printhead is amazing to watch. At my high school typing speed of 55 words per minute (achieved on a manual typewriter), the ball on a Selectric repositions itself and makes good impressions on paper at an astonishing 275 times a minute.

I appreciate technology—for the tools it provides that help us achieve what we want to achieve. That’s the beauty of technology, but it also comes with problems.

So what’s the problem?
There’s always a downside to good things, it seems. When new technology displaces old, life can become difficult. I learned about that in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I enjoyed early in my literary journey. I’m not the only one who likes it. In 2007, the book came in at No. 74 in a National Education Association poll to determine “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.”

Published in 1939 at the depths of the Great Depression, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was authored by Virginia Lee Burton. The story pits Mike and Mary Anne—Mary Anne is Mike’s steam shovel—against new-generation shovels powered by gasoline, electricity, and diesel fuel (not unlike eight-track tapes being replaced by compact cassettes and, later, non-magnetic digital media).

“Everywhere they went the new gas shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels had all the jobs. No one wanted Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne any more.” Burton thus described in a book for children the disruptive force that gives capitalism its economic power—three years before Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction.”

Anyone read a good book to you lately? No? Well, then, click here, sit back, and enjoy! But remember to come back and read the rest of my column.

These days, advancement in technology has produced something even more sinister than loss of jobs, and that’s loss of personal security, the digital loss of you. Did you ever hear of identity theft prior to the internet? (The internet is now so ubiquitous that the Associated Press Stylebook, usage guide for Reflections on Nursing Leadership, dictates that it no longer be capitalized.)

Watch out for the ditch on the information highway!
I don’t know how I’d get along without the internet, but this great technology endangers us when someone, either next door or on another continent, hacks our computer, sends untrue and embarrassing messages to our friends, or empties our bank accounts—sometimes worse. And what could be worse? Well, loss of national security, for one thing. Just last month, the U.S. Air Force launched a new initiative dubbed “Hack the Air Force.” By paying “white-hat hackers” to do their best to find security vulnerabilities, this branch of the U.S. armed forces seeks to strengthen its defenses against real enemies.

When beneficial technology poses personal security problems, what do you do? The answer isn’t to become a modern Luddite who seeks to avoid creative destruction by returning to the past and less threatening tools, but rather to become informed about how to protect yourself against hacking and other digital mischief.

Did you know that your personal loss of security can affect the health of your patients? To help nurses become informed—technology experts David Finn and Ken Dion have authored an exclusive, three-part series for RNL readers titled “Everyday technology security tips for nurses.” It’s must-reading that you avoid at your own risk and perhaps at someone else’s. I encourage you to read the entire series.

James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.


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