Technology

John Henry was hammering on the right side,
The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He hammered his fool self to death.

American folk song “John Henry” pits man against machine in drilling a tunnel for the railroad. John Henry wins the contest, but the effort costs him his life.

You probably won’t see that song on Billboard’s Top 40 list, but its theme is still with us, as shown in the recent rematch between chess master Gary Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Junior chess program. The Associated Press article for February 9 described the final moments:

“Kasparov played himself into a superior position but offered a draw on the 23rd move, surprising chess experts at the New York Athletic Club. Deep Junior turned down the offer but presented its own draw five moves later, and Kasparov readily accepted to boos from the crowd.

“Kasparov said he played better than Deep Junior in the deciding game and would have pressed for a win in a similar position against a human opponent. But, he said, he feared even a tiny mistake would have been severely punished by the computer.”

Do you view technology as an opponent? For many editors, the answer is yes. Editors, indexers, and other publishing professionals seem extremely conservative about technology–perhaps with good reason. Their job is to ensure accuracy, clarity, and even beauty–and that requires a human mind. Editors are right to resist anything that gets in the way of those goals. And managers who believe that a spell check is as good as an edit or that a machine-generated concordance can take the place of an index need to be educated about the realities of the marketplace–realities that will surely come back to bite them if ignored.

It is also true, however, that editors who ignore the need to use technology do so at their peril. The field of publishing is changing rapidly, and editors have got to keep up. If they don’t, they’ll be replaced–not by machines but by other editors who know how to use machines to their advantage.

I’m tempted here to give my lecture about how the lowly plow made civilization possible, with a recapitulation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the overwhelming role of technology in human progress. But I won’t. Instead, I will ask you: What have you learned this week about using your computer to help you do your job more efficiently? If your answer is “Nothing,” may I encourage you to check out our newsletter archive, where you’ll find a wealth of information about editing in Microsoft Word.

I especially encourage you to read the articles on wildcard searching and replacing, which may be the most important tool you can acquire. If that’s not enough, pay a visit to the Word MVP site, where you’ll find tips and techniques aplenty.

Finally, ask yourself: “What one thing could I do with my computer that would dramatically increase my effectiveness?” Then find out how to do it.

Michael Dertouzos, late director of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, had a slogan that I like: “Doing more by doing less.” And Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, said, “I believe that . . . a person today who is computer literate is twenty times more valuable than someone who is not because they’re facilitated. It’s like they have three robots working for them.”

The truth is, you don’t have to beat the machine; all you have to do is put it to work.

To learn more about John Henry:

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/index.html

To learn more about the Kasparov matches:

http://www.research.ibm.com/deepblue/home/html/b.html

http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,57607,00.html

To read Wealth of Nations:

http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html

To learn about the history of civilization:

http://www.humberc.on.ca/~warrick/0hist.html

For a lighter look at that history:

http://www.csc.twu.ca/rsbook2/Ch1/Ch1.S.html

For a Seybold seminar on the future of publishing:

http://seminars.seyboldreports.com/1999_boston/conferences/13/13_transcript.html

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