Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adapting to Technology

I had to do this post, after all the brou-ha-ha over Apple's new iPad product...

I think recent developments in technology have been rather interesting, particularly as they demonstrate human adaptability. First off, I have to notice that there isn't much attempt to get a computer to read your handwriting any more. They had a couple of products, years ago now, that would try to read what you wrote on a pad with a stylus; these were generally not very successful. Much more successful was the Palm Pilot. Why? Because instead of adapting the computer to your handwriting, it had you adapt your handwriting to the computer. For a while I used it, using the fixed shorthand that the Palm had designed for its interface. It worked - wasn't as quick as I might have liked, but it was a workable interface.

I remember people telling me it was only a matter of time before they figured out how to do the handwriting thing. And I remember telling those people that people were a lot more adaptable than computers, and that in all probability the problem would never be solved.

I don't think I was exactly wrong. I'm not seeing handwriting recognition these days - we've moved onto something completely different. Now we have touch screens.

I hear a lot about how "natural" touch screens are. I suppose they are. I can't argue with the fact that it's a lot less hassle to use your fingers directly on the screen than to try to pull out a stylus and use it without dropping it or having it be too small to write with comfortably. In a way, the hand is the original communicator, prior even to the stylus or pencil or pen. And we're adapting again, because after all, it's much easier to adapt to the needs of the computer than it is for the computer to adapt to you. People aren't writing by hand much any more. Keyboards are what it's all about, and those keyboards are available inside the fancy touch screens, too. I'm guessing also that people aren't learning to type much any more - in part because typing (by that I mean touch typing) was a skill usually taught to older people. I remember you had to be twelve years old to get into the typing class I took (I was twelve). These days my kids, 7 and 4 and a half, are using the keyboard already, and I'm going to have to teach them to touch type myself if I don't want them to create their own technique from scratch.

It's curious. Technology allows us to do a lot of things we want to do, and at the same time, it changes our behaviors. Sometimes this happens in ways we don't expect, and it's good to keep your eye out. I deliberately write certain things by hand because I hate to think I'd let my handwriting become a mess illegible by humans (much less by computers!). I will make an effort to teach my kids to type efficiently.

I want to tell you about a really fascinating example of people responding to technology in an unexpected and not very helpful way. I heard this one from my friend Dave Malinowski, who posts over at the UC Berkeley Found in Translation blog. A French language class had introduced video chat sessions with native speakers of French. Great news! Now, in addition to the teacher and their fellow students, students can speak to real live native French speakers. It was a great idea, except that the students set too much store by the fact that these were native speakers. They stopped wanting to speak to each other as much, maybe because they had the idea that the native French was better. Now they were cutting down on their total interaction in French.

I think this has some relevance to story writing, especially with science fiction that involves technology, but also with fantasy worlds that involve alternate technologies (even if they aren't "high-tech" ones). When you give a group of people a particular technology, try to think through how they will adapt to it, and how it will change their behavior either individually (as in the writing example) or socially (as in the French class example). When you're finished, the result will probably be a world that feels more whole.


  1. It's been said that shoes (moccasins) were the first big behavior-changers. Of course, sharp rocks made quite a difference, and custom-chipped blades more.
    Writing itself, even if by charcoal on a wall, changed us again. By the time we had clay tablets, I've heard, Sumerian kids soon got to complaining about homework.

    Projecting this into the future, even in the short term, is a tricky business. As you point out, most Big New Things never pan out. Even if they work, often times, nobody cares.
    I have yet to see one of those simple brainwave-controlled games that hit the market last Christmas. Perhaps they will become much more sophisticated.

  2. I agree that projecting behavior into the future is very hard - because certain changes can build on themselves exponentially. I don't mind a not-completely-different view of the future though; I find it more constructive and enjoyable if I can relate to the story in contemporary terms. So, I suspect, do many readers.