One of the interesting features of this newspaper is its conscious attempt to look at the past. Major political and social events are recounted in the section titled “This Day That Age”. On the sport and cultural fronts, many columnists recollect the past and provide a context to the present in an engaging manner. “Blast from the Past” by Randor Guy belongs to this genre. Last week (Cinema Plus, The Hindu, Feb. 17, 2013, Tamil Nadu editions) he wrote about the TKS Brothers’ film Bilhanan (1948). And there was a spelling mistake in the article where poet Kavimani Desiya Vinayagam Pillai became Caveman Desiya Vinayagam Pillai.
This error raises some interesting questions about man-machine interface, the growing dependence on technology and reduced human intervention in copy. First, how did the mistake happen? The spell check feature in any Word document would have corrected the perfectly right “Kavimani” (gem among poets) to a wrong “Caveman”. The mistake may have happened at any point: it could have been in the writer’s original copy, sub-editor may have not noticed the error the machine was introducing, or at the page-making end someone would have run a spell check. All of them are human and are capable of relying on the magic of the machine to clean their copy.
Before exploring the impact of technology on our writing skills, let me tell you that my respect for sub-editors is no less to that of Edward Shanks, the biographer of Kipling and a journalist of repute in the first half of the last century. Nearly seventy years ago Shanks wrote: “Of all created beings I think it is the sub-editor who most commands my timorous admiration. The news is thrown at him in huge miscellaneous masses, which, but for his labors, would kill the reader stone-dead with mental indigestion. He has to cook this mass, having first trimmed it into reasonable proportions, keeping one eye on the probable accuracy of the facts as stated, another on the law of libel, another on various other considerations which crop up from time to time, such as the law relating to elections, and yet a fourth, which must be no less vigilant than the other three, upon the clock. Sub-editors, when I meet them, seem to have only two eyes just like other people; where they keep the other two I cannot say, but I know they must have them.”
I have been reflecting on the impact of technology on writing for nearly a decade and a half. The questions that came to my mind when I wrote the essay ‘The muse in the machine’ for Outlook way back in 2000 seem to be relevant even today. That essay was a product of a long discussion with social scientist Shiv Viswanathan.
Says he: “if the Internet represents the celebratory chaos of cyberspace, the computer as word processor has all the makings of a linguistic corset. Computers today come equipped with a gauntlet of dictionaries, spell checks, thesaurus and readability quotients. They become a procrustean bed trimming every essay into a troop of well-cropped sentences. What began as a search for functional clarity became a standardised domain of language.”
Correction vs vitality
What one needs to understand then is the relation between the machine and language as technology. As Viswanathan points out, language is one of the greatest of technologies programmed by grammar. But there is a free play between grammar and language, a dialectic of inventiveness and discipline. A computer’s sense of language, on the other hand, can only be mechanical. But then, a computer like any other machine, despite being an aid, is also a system of de-skilling whereby answers can be had at the push of a button. And when it comes to a computer’s supervision of language, the correctness might remain but a certain vitality is lost. “Talk of Dante and Hell and all the computer produces is a thermometer. Take a Pynchon, a Joyce or an Ezra Pound and feed them into your computer and it will see red. These are the criminals of language who need to be reduced to the homogeneity of monochromatic citizenship,” says Viswanathan.
He further expounded: “The technocracy wants a transparent language that it can police and patrol easily, anything that smacks of myth, metaphor or utopia is seen as dissenting and refractory. Our modes of work and leisure demand a hurrying through language. We don’t want to be delayed, ambushed or deceived by language. We want language to hurry along with our lives. The mass media caters to our limited attention spans with its so-called use of racy language.”
On the other hand, I can also list a number of benefits of this anthro-automata interface. Despite all its artificial intelligence, a machine cannot handle the challenges posed by the language. Yes, we need vigilant sub-editors.