Monday, 27 July 2015

New Reading, New Writing

Recently I’ve been rereading the book, 'Profiles of the Future' by Arthur C. Clarke. I first bought this collection of speculative essays in 1962. I think I heard a review of it on the radio. (The BBC Light Programme as it was called then). It's interesting to discover what Clarke got right and wrong. 

In fact, this time around the actual reading experience is very different. Reading it on the Kindle for the Mac I can look up references and names as I go. Those of Clarke’s references that I encountered and puzzled over 50 years can now be traced within seconds. And Kindle permits searches of wikipedia direct from the text. 

Reading online is also essential with Will Self in the New Statesman. Will Self -The Who in Concert I can usually get no further than two paragraphs into a Self essay without encountering some word (such as valetudinarian) which has me reaching for Control C to copy whatever stray, (Self would probably have gone with tatterdemalion) from the hinterland of the Oxford English Dictionary that he's come up with this week.

It's also, of course, possible to have the text read to you by the machine and I've used this for proofing text. It gives a different 'take' on the material.

But wait, writing has changed too. This blog has been written, in part, using Apple’s text to speech dictation system. I’m giving it a try. But I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the old silent communion between brain and keyboard though. 

The system does a pretty good job of the translating my speech into text, undoubtedly I will go through it line by line on the keyboard and edit the first draft as normal but creating the first draft should be quicker than my two finger typing skills.

We are all accustomed to seeing business people dictating to their secretaries. It’s been the height of luxury to be able to just open one’s mind and mouth and create. And it seems easy enough when we see it on TV. However, it’s a rather different process in practice. I find it better if I don’t look at the screen while dictating because somewhere in my head my fingers are still itching to get to the keyboard and get my thoughts down the old fashioned way.

Moreover, one of the reasons I write it’s because it allows me to organise my thoughts and formalise them. I have numerous half formed ideas on many topics. The process of actually writing something down is essential to exploring and analysing the idea. During writing the thoughts run on ahead of the typing. The log jam of the fingers on the keyboard seems to allow the brain to go off and find additional points that might have been missed when narrating verbally.

On the keyboard I usually do a first quick draft to get all the points down and then iterate through it deleting duplications and 'burning' as few words as possible. I'm also adding further points or clarifying explanations. Maybe text-to-speech can be used in the first draft. And then the editing, which typically requires a lot of hopping around the text, will be done on the keyboard.    

At the end though speaking to a computer was certainly one of the things Clarke got right. Who can forget, "Open the Pod bay doors Hal." But the enhanced reading experience was not, I think, predicted by him or anyone else. 

That an animal evolved/optimised for hunter/gathering should come up with something as remarkable as a written language is astonishing enough. That every thousand years or so the inventors come up with a new spin on it is, as Will Self might put it, thaumaturgic.  

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