Reflections of a ModemJunkie

April, 1999

Validated --

Balance in a Brave New World

by Leonard Grossman

Most of us seek to be validated, somehow. And if we don't seek it, it still feels good to have our ideas and beliefs confirmed. It really feels good. So, this weekend as I sat in bed catching up on old issues of the New York Times, I suddenly felt very good.

I was reading the March 25th issue of Circuits, in the old gray lady's weekly technology supplement. Circuits is frequently filled with techno-hype. Article after article touting the latest gadgets and fads in the computer and online world. But this week article after article touched a chord. One after another, the articles focused on issues I have discussed here before -- the need for balance between old and new.

One article in this issue was entitled "In Love with Technology, as long as it's Dusty." Those of you who have read my tributes to my old 286 can imagine how at home I felt. I have to confess, that article made me feel like a comparative early adopter. This guy was collecting things like early phonographs and recordings - - pre Edison. You can read more about his obsession on his Resources for Phonograph Collectors web page.

I am not really that bad, but I used to have a cartoon hanging in my office. "Leonard is a Beta man in an increasingly VHS world." That definitely described me then, although I have long since given away all of my Lyric Opera opening night Beta HiFI tapes to someone I met on line. Still, reading about his hobby was somehow reassuring.

Then there was another article, "The Favorite Gadgets of the Geek Elite." One of the subjects of the article was Eric Raymond, president of Open Source Initiative. He doesn't carry any of the latest devices. "I certainly am not resistant to technology," he said. "I have been a happy Internet user since the 1970's. But at the moment I find that I don't have a Palm Pilot, I don't have a cell phone." Shocking. He may lose his place at the head of the table.

But Esther Dyson, head of a company hosting a technology conference, had no such devices either. "People who spend all their time thinking about technology have the power to choose whether or not to use it," she is said to have noted. But then she said something really important. To her, "the ideas that flow to her via the technology, whether they come as E-mail or an exciting new software application, are far more interesting than the hardware." Radical. It's the ideas that count.

Choice and content. Rather than slavery to technology and form.

But then two additional articles made an even more important point. One I have stressed before. David Oshinsky, chairman of the Rutgers University history department, reviewed a new CD-ROM, The Library of Congress: Eyes of the Nation. He begins by noting that he has consciously shied away from CD -ROMS, seeing digital tools as a "frivolous assault on scholarly standards."

But after spending time with the new medium, he states, "I have been partially converted, much like the wayward Puritan of the 1650's who made a 'half-way covenant' with his faith." "Used in conjunction with more traditional methods, the CD-ROM may well revolutionize the way we teach history." Even more radical. A distinguished historian accepts the new technology, when used in conjunction with the old. We don't have to ban the new. But we must not consign traditional media to the dustbin either. Each has its place.

This article is followed by another: "For Serious Lincoln Scholars, Chances for New Discoveries." This piece discusses a new project offering the eight volume set, "The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" online. All 2,048,683 printed words. Not only will the material be available online but it will be accessible through a searchable database at This tool is meant to be a companion to, not a substitute for the hardbound copy.

The author, Herbert Mitgang asks, "Will the new electronic research really change our knowledge about the character and achievements of Lincoln or any other President? It is too early to tell. With the printed word, the slower process of turning the pages can sometimes lead a researcher to lucky discoveries. My guess is that the books and the database are destined to supplement rather than replace each other." The author concludes, "But Lincoln, a sometime inventor and a lecturer on the power of books and the print media, might well have cheered the idea of reaching a wider audience with his words in any form."

As a lawyer, I know full well the value of researching on line. But I also know the advantage of reading cases from the page. I have discussed this with my third year law school students and they agree.

Technology is great but it is not always dependable. My ISP had been going through a meltdown. Indeed, that was my originally scheduled topic for this month. The frustration of not being able to get on line. Not being able to get my Internet fix. E-mail that won't go through. Web pages I can't edit or update. Sometimes I long for the old tools. Pencil and paper. Simple. Reliable.

The letters column of this issue Circuits discussed that issue too. In its March 11 issue, Circuits had an article entitled "Shakespeare never Lost a Manuscript to a Computer Crash." This week, writers argued about the effect of writing with computers as compared to the good old-fashioned way. One complained about the fancy fonts and beautiful layout of student papers which paid no attention to content, grammar or cohesiveness.

Another noted that the learning curve to become proficient with a quill in Shakespeare's day must have been quite a hindrance to productivity. But the writer went on to observe that not everyone is Shakespeare. "Most people who brave the learning curve of turning on a computer and starting a program find that this tool and the information, they can obtain will leave them far more educated and productive than those in Shakespeare's time or any time since."

I wouldn't go that far, but I do know that my handwriting was long a bar to productivity. I don't really know if the quality of my work is any better than it was BC (before computers) but the quantity certainly has improved. I no longer have to know how something will turn out to begin a project. I no longer have to worry about editing and the pain, with my poor penmanship, of rewriting. I have demonstrated to my students that form does affect content. I am sure the medium does so as well. But at least today things get written that were for so long locked in my head.

Still, there is something about words on paper. Imagine my excitement as a 12-year old to discover in my father's files, original documents from the Civil War era, including a telegram from Abraham Lincoln. At the beginning of his career, my father had represented the estate of a Civil War General. Among the documents was a United States Military Telegraph from the War Department. In faded pencil it read as follows:

	Dated Sep 25, 1863.
	To Genl. McCallum

	I have sent to Genl Meade by telegraph
	 to suspend the Execution of Paul Sullivan
	of Co. E. 13th Mass which was to be today
	 but understanding that there is an interruption
	on the Line may I beg You to Send this to him
	 by the quickest mode in Your Power.

		A Lincoln

What are the odds of a youngster discovering such a thing in his home in the century to come? If it is on disk, will there even be a program that can still read it?

But look more closely. The issues we face today have been with us for a very long time. I worry about my ISP going down. Sometimes all I can get is voice mail. Or worse, a fast busy. E-mail bounces. But we are not alone. Read that letter again. Even Lincoln had to face the limits of technology. The words jump out. "Understanding that there is an interruption on the Line."

An interruption on the line!! I did a little research at the time. I wrote an Eighth Grade paper about Genl. McCallum. But I never found out if that message got through on time. Was Paul Sullivan executed or was he saved? Did technology fail or did Lincoln's early efforts at redundancy succeed.

By the way, I wrote that paper in Parker Royale Blue ink with a Parker pen my father left me. It was actually quite legible. I even got an A. Some of you may remember washable ink. We had a flood in our basement a few years ago. All that was left of the paper was a pale blue wash on notebook paper. But Lincoln's pencilled note is still legible more than 135 years after it was written.

But I digress. Was it merely a coincidence that all these articles appeared in one issue of Circuits? I think not. We are coming to a time of consolidation. In this Fin De Siecle era, we are looking back. (Another article in that issue discussed using computers to digitally remaster old films to restore and save them for another day.) As we enter a brave new world, we are beginning to realize once again, that technology is great but it is not all. We need to choose. To use it to serve our needs but not to be subservient to it. Not to become hooked. Not to become slaves to the medium instead of letting it enrich our lives.

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Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman

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