Moving to Computer and Internet

by Doreen Simmons

Aunt Eva, that dear wired-up old tabby, turns her benevolent gaze upon the question of upgrading: do we or don’t we?

Dear Aunt Eva:

All my friends (editors, translators, copywriters) are turning in their pencils and fax machines for computers and e-mail. It looks like an expensive change, with a serious learning curve. Is this necessary? What about all the time needed to learn how to use the new purchase? Help.

Dinah Soare


Aunt Eva answers:

First, ask yourself if you can afford to remain in the world of pencils and fax machines. For some, the answer is Yes. It’s what they’re used to, they like living at that speed, it’s what they know, and they can’t imagine any other way. One of Aunt Eva’s friends still prefers to communicate with handwritten messages on home-made postcards; but then, his favorite occupations are writing poetry and interpreting the works of Shakespeare—there isn’t the same sense of urgency that there is in getting a news item to press or turning in a translation on time.

Conversely, ask if, and how, a computer can improve your life. Make a list of things it can and can’t do better. Some people point proudly to the greater volume of writing they are able to do with a computer; but there is no evidence that anyone is able to produce better writing; indeed, quality often drops through overreliance on spelling checks and other goodies dangled in front of your nose.

A computer can, however, cut out a lot of unproductive drudgery. Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you have translated a long article in which a particular technical term has occurred one hundred times. Right at the end, you discover that there is a better term. With a pencil and eraser, that’s a lot of rubbing out. If you are still using a typewriter, even one with a corrector ribbon, it’s a time-consuming job to find, align, and retype the term every time. Compare this with the early word processors: you still have to find the word, but replacing is seamless, as the text automatically adjusts. With a computer, your editing software will have a “search and replace” function: you can tell your electronic bloodhound to sniff out the same word or phrase every time it appears and replace it with the correction. All you have to do is read it over again to make sure it hasn’t replaced it anywhere you didn’t want it. If you are replacing “king” with “monarch,” primitive software could leave you with “thinmonarch” and “sinmonarch.”

The sheer convenience of a computer’s electronic tools will almost certainly win you over; but don’t go overboard yet.

Start collecting clippings, and cultivate friends and colleagues who use computers as a matter of course. Choose people who have fairly recently emerged from the “blasphemous beginner” stage and are now enjoying the freedom and light of the new experience. The reason should be obvious: those to whom computers have become second nature cannot understand the problems of a beginner. They can’t remember them. Aunt Eva recalls the mutual frustration of a trainee math teacher and a class of bright 11-year-olds. The class couldn’t understand calculus; the new graduate could not say offhand what seven times seven were.

Several kinds of people may give you a bum steer. Avoid the addicts; you can tell them by the bleary eyes and the fact that only virtual reality exists for them. Beware of the euphorics who have not yet endured the bad things that inevitably happen. Beware of the simplistic who wish to conceal their own stupid mistakes, and pretend that their learning curve was one seamless upward swoop. Beware of those who have given up, but don’t want to admit it; they don’t actually use their computer any more, but will not rest until they have persuaded everybody they know to waste their money on one, too.

Nevertheless, remember the Luddites. They were the men who went around in the early 19th century smashing the newfangled textile machines. They wove cloth at home, on looms that they worked with their own hands and feet. They were afraid that the machines would put them out of business—and they were right. The problem with most of these revolutionary improvements, you see, is that large numbers of the people who were really good at doing things the old way are not able to adapt to the new.

If you do decide to get a computer—and if you are a member of SWET you probably will—try to enjoy it, stage by stage, as a learning experience. Don’t throw out the equipment that you have been using so far. But as you get to know your computer’s capabilities, take each job you now do, and ask if your computer can do it better. Very often it can; sometimes it can’t. A pencil and an eraser are still valuable working tools. Especially the eraser.

Eva Hartupp


From Newsletter Number 79 (March 1998)