Sunday, October 6, 2013

DELETE key dilemma

October 6, 2013

Dear friends,

There was snow on the lawn last week—gone now, but still clearly cold and real in my memory. Gold leaves cover the old cottonwood with rich autumn. A small flock of anxious birds are making trial runs over the lake, getting in condition for the long flight south.


I stopped to re-read what I had just written and became abruptly conscious of the huge amount of the utterly ordinary carried by the words I had just committed to screen. Should I just delete them and start over?

Further pause.


Decision: let the paragraph stand and use it as a bridge to next week’s work.

In my opinion, today’s unintended detour does in fact provide a helpful link to next week’s thinking. However, in order to form your own reasoned opinion you will need to read today’s blog and next week’s as well. Tricky semantic shenanigans, don’t you think? (Smiles)

Now, to begin again.

At times (as today) when I sit down at my computer I become aware suddenly of the indescribable distance between committing words to paper, and the communication process I use today when I commit words to screen. 

Composing my first “story” for Miss Hilda seemed at the time creation of a magnum opus and a highly risky business. It required me first to find the ‘right’ words in my mind, then make letters that stood for those words on a paper. This was a slow laborious process using a much chewed pencil. It required decisions about many things, including capital letters. Mistakes, even when corrected, left awful evidence—black erasure marks, and, in severe emergencies, resulted in a hole rubbed through the paper. 

Today I touch plastic keys and (by a complex process I do not understand) a shadowy image of words instantly appears on a high resolution screen. Then (magically!!) I can make these word images alter or vanish without leaving evidence of change—at least, so far as my eyes can see. 

What a wonderful freedom I now have—I can eliminate mistakes with no shadow left behind. This DELETE key conveniently placed on my wireless keyboard represents not simply convenience but real progress. I can not only change what I have said, but I can also leave a flawless record that implies effortless brilliance (and—let’s face it—an implied goodness that reflects more reliably my effective use of the DELETE key than the moral maturity I have achieved.) 
I can choose misleading or inappropriate words, I can indulge in careless thinking with little apparent consequence. I can be logically absurd with nobody the wiser—I simply hit the DELETE key. 

Emotionally, I can express ridiculous levels of self-importance and then, destroy the linguistic evidence of my narcissism and evade the consequences of my foolishness—I simply hit the DELETE key or hire an editor to do this for me.

Freedom at last from linguistic responsibility. 

Even briefly considered, this conclusion is not tenable; it rests on an apparent logic that leads (albeit in a gentle crooked line) away from truth and reality, as we will see. But for the moment, think with me about the reasons this conclusion remains so believable, and so “self-evident” in what is commonly referred to as our emergent age.

In the old eraser age, it was not so easy to evade the impact of the choices we made regarding words. There wasn’t really an eraser for words that we had said out loud, Miss Hilda explained one day in the aftermath of a classroom quarrel. Saying “I am sorry” helped people feel better, but that didn’t make the words go away. This was one reason why we should learn to think carefully before we spoke, particularly when we were angry or upset.

It soon occurred to me that putting words on paper was safer than saying them out loud. On paper, if you did not like what you wrote you could erase words. If you made a hole in the paper while you were erasing words, you could throw the paper in the wastebasket and write things differently on a new sheet of paper.

I also soon realized that there was a down side to this approach. Being safe in this way required the boring discipline of re-reading carefully what you had written. Erasing left marks, and doing things over entailed a great deal of unpleasant work. Getting someone else to do your work or putting your name on work someone else had done was UNACCEPTABLE!! This was cheating!!!!!

Part of the present appeal of the DELETE key lies in its power to suppress evidence of mistakes in the service of correction of errors. Arguably, a different reality underlies the act of striking the DELETE key and the now archaic process of finding an eraser and rubbing out a poorly chosen or misspelled word as it exists on paper, or—severe pain—being required to rewrite an entire paper because the words chosen implied meaning that lay short of the truth.

It is not difficult to understand the self-justifying appeal inherent in  computer-generated virtual reality. A student (in her senior year) once protested a grade that had been lowered because of what was  an appalling number of glaring errors in spelling.

“I don’t think it’s fair to judge my paper like that,” she complained. “After all, you admitted yourself that the content earned an A. I got a B just because I forgot to spell-check my final draft. My spelling errors would not have mattered—you wouldn’t have known about those spelling errors if I had told my computer to spell-check my paper before you read it. Should failure to spell-check lower my grade one whole letter value?” 

In an emergent world, what difference does it make if I rely on spell-check? Why learn to spell anyway? Why learn cursive writing when keyboarding is all that pragmatic practice is likely to require?

And how does what I do shape who I am? How does the DELETE key change my awareness of the impact of what I say? How does it change my sense of myself?

Thinking with you that words matter, and, at a different level, spelling does too, as does cursive writing, but that in the emergent world it is not easy to define this significance.

If in my blog you found a punctuation error, a misspelled word, or fuzzy thinking, did you think “Failure to spell-check,”  “Careless thinking” or “She needs an editor”? Or did you make a judgement about who you believe me to be?

Is spell-check possible on texting? I wonder why not?

Would you think it significant if you received a letter with your name written in the address in cursive script, and the return address written carefully in cursive? (The old ones remember a time when address labels did not appear unsolicited in the mail.)

Looking ahead to next week when we will consider the DELETE key dilemma in the context of the dangerous SEND key and the fact that my old PC still remains in the garage.

Tired, and uncertain how to assess progress,



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