Bulletin 26 April 2019. On transformation, word processing and Jacuzzis

There’s a moment in the seminal, moving and poignant film Trading Places, which for some reason pops into my mind every time something emerges as new, improved, reinvented, reimagined or otherwise presented as untouched and serene from the tumultuous storms of innovation. The moment comes as Eddy Murphy’s character Billy Ray tries out a Jacuzzi bath for the first time: “When I was growing up, if we wanted a Jacuzzi, we had to fart in the tub,” he says, to the discomfort of Randolph and Mortimer Duke.

To whit, peer programming, which is not such a novel concept these days (Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming approach is 23 years old this year). When I started as a programmer a decade before, we simply did not have enough computers to go around, so myself and Mike worked together on a shared workstation, debugging code and solving problems with a fair amount of banter and just a soupçon of astonishing competitiveness. The result: we got quite a lot done.

Fast forward to today and we see similar concepts being repackaged as discoveries: I don’t have a problem with that, as each generation needs its own epiphanies. More of an issue is how we seem intent on creating the situations in the first place, which need such moments of joyous, simplificatory release in response.

To whit: word processing and textual information exchange. This should be a problem space which, once solved, doesn’t need need re-solving; but as such, acts as a pH test for the ebb and flow of technology as a whole. Word processing was one of the first tasks to which computers were set: a logical merger between the typewriter and the ability to store and retrieve data. It was, and should still be, that simple. And yet.

And yet. When I was put in charge of the hardware and software being used for a complex software project, one of the first conundrums I hit was the licensing of the  Interleaf desktop publishing package. Interleaf was comprehensive, powerful and de facto for even the simplest of memos; it was also expensive, with the result that people spent periods waiting for a license before they could get on with their working lives.

This was, of course, insane. I advocated (or at least tried to advocate) the use of text editors for memo creation; I even created templates with a textual representation of the company logo. Strangely, people preferred to wait, prioritising form over function. I should add that these were days before email: the notion of the ‘memo’ still had its place.

The point is, I’m not sure we have progressed that far. In today’s world, we fafe a plethora of choices as to platform, tool and feature; at the same time, each is looking to add a variety of bells and whistles to avoid being outflanked by the competition. Alongside Office 365 in all of its online/offline versions, we have Google’s toolset; elsewhere Apple and a variety of other providers bring their own, not to mention the staggering number of online platforms — WordPress, Medium and so on.

From a writer’s perspective, each is like trying to listen to to some quiet jazz in a shopping mall: any attempt to get words down on a page is bombarded, creative signals drowned in noise. Or the words themselves become locked into some provider’s private universe, with who knows what terms and conditions. Lost completely are the most obvious notions of “write something down, share it more broadly, be able to find it later.”

Without turning this into a rant, I think such realities characterise where we actually are: technology remains a complex, rapidly changing jungle of possibility, and we are a long way from arriving at a point where we can get on with the job. This is neither good nor bad; it is, however, worth putting it back to back with the fact companies, and people, are told they must change if they want to keep up. Perhaps it is not they, but technology, that actually needs to get its act together.

Smart Shift: (Over)sharing is caring

In not unrelated news and weaving in the Mormon Church and the Coastline Paradox, this week’s smartshift looks at how we have been creating large quantities of data about ourselves, and handing it over to online corporations. Go us.

That’s all for this week, apart from to say: yes, this was typed with a text editor. Works for me!


Bulletin 26 April 2019. On transformation, word processing and Jacuzzis