Digital as a Second Language

Elsewhere in these pages (in this space?) Steve Heller laments his discovery that, after a lifetime as a print designer, he is unable to speak the language of the web. Can I, he asks plaintively, learn it at this stage? The revelation was shocking because until now I had regarded him as at least a semi-geek. His complaint is not unique. When I first knew Ivan Chermayeff he was considered the enfant terrible of graphic design. By the time he had become an éminence grise the internet was in sight and we were both board members of an organization that was considering the desirability of opening a website. As the putative communication specialists on the board, Ivan and I were jointly assigned the responsibility of investigating the matter and reporting back at the next meeting. I don’t remember that we investigated anything, but at the end of the meeting Ivan took me aside and said, “Ralph, do we know what a website is?” I assumed he was joking, but I really didn’t.

Responses to Heller’s plight range from encouraging offers to teach him, to tips about the attitude requisite to learning web intricacies, to assurances that he’ll never get good at it. Although on a far more primitive plane, I have a comparable lament of my own. After writing all my life, I discover that my facility with words is limited by my inability to understand the instruments most commonly used for processing them.

I was once ahead of the game in the use of sophisticated equipment. Bypassing penmanship, I had a portable typewriter in junior high, although I did no homework on it, or on anything else. During my early adult years I worked on a succession of portables until I acquired a sturdy Olympia office manual, eschewing electrics because they hummed while you were trying to think. Finally, I did get a Selectric and used it until my neighborhood repair shop stopped servicing typewriters. My first computer experience was at long distance, dictating a book by phone into a tape recorder. The tapes were retrieved by a circle of women in the Midwest who had been a company typing pool and were now the word processing staff. The idea that words are things to be “processed” was jarring and still is, but I got back neatly typed pages of manuscript that I then un-neatened with corrections. Dictating came surprisingly easy to me, and I continued the practice at home, dictating to an assistant who entered my words into a PC that I didn’t dare touch. For years now I have been working on a PC of my own, still fearful but more or less functional. That machine is ready for retirement, and I have just bought a Mac.

I have been there before, but not for long. Actually, my last book was written in Quark, under the supervision of the graphic designer/book packager who lent me the Mac I used. I had once bought one of my own, but sold it in less than a week, offended by what I then regarded as its patronizing interface. I didn’t want to be welcomed by my computer, I don’t like smiley faces in any medium, and if I wanted to get rid of a document I’d rather hit a delete button than drag the image of a folder into the image of a trash can. When I replaced it with a PC, however, I found that Windows had copied everything that had made me resent the Mac, and was loaded with cumbersome baggage of its own.

I’ve been fighting with my computer ever since. When it tells me that my browser has committed an illegal action, I ask sarcastically, “Am I my browser’s keeper?” When it scolds me for making error 529, I know it will decline to say what that is or how to correct it. When I send e-mail attachments, either they arrive garbled or the recipients tell me that their system has detected a virus and quarantined my messages.

But I have stayed with it, believing that the difference was generational. A Mac, I have been told, is a young person’s machine, perfectly well suited to what Marc Prensky calls “digital natives,” those who have never known another time—unlike the rest of us who are “digital immigrants.” My children all have Macs, except those who work for companies that supply them with PCs. My son actually quit a job because the magazine he worked for had been bought by a corporation that had replaced its Macs with PCs. As for me, I feel like an illegal digital immigrant, living in constant fear that the authorities will find that my green card has expired and I don’t remember my password or web key.

In the field of design, virtually everyone I do business with uses a Mac and has wondered why I didn’t too. When I teach I am painfully aware that the assignments my students turn in look more elegant, both in print and electronically, than the assignments I gave them. My friend George Covington, who is legally blind, is a long-time Apple buff, relying on digital photography to show him the faces that he cannot otherwise see. Covington lives in Alpine, Texas, where he writes a column for the Alpine Avalanche as “The Blind Bard of the Big Bend.” One of his columns last year harshly compared the character and intelligence of Mac users with that of PC users, and salted the wound by comparing the Mac’s operating system to Windows and, even worse, to Windows with Vista. George’s savage mockery didn’t goad me into getting a Mac—Randy Pausch did that. He was the charismatic professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon who, learning that his death from pancreatic cancer was imminent, electrified first his class, then the world at large, with his famous “Last Lecture.” In what was apparently an inside joke, Pausch told his students they would be pleased to know that he had made a deathbed conversion to a Mac!

Well, I am willing. But am I ready or able? I approach the Mac with trepidation comparable to Heller’s claimed approach to the web. I am not and have never been a Luddite. But I am a klutz. Like all klutzes, I blame my tools, and the computer is one of them. I’ve accused my computer of needing an exorcist—but what if I’m the one who needs an exorcist? Now that I have a Mac, will I fight with it as I always have with its predecessor? I try to think of things I had no aptitude for that I nevertheless managed to learn in my lifetime. There are a few: sending and receiving 20 words per minute in Morse code; doing the yogic headstand and peacock posture; performing three tricks—two sleight-of-hand and one memory; and playing “Oh! Susanna” on the harmonica. I cannot do any of them today.

So I am not exactly confident, but there is no more effective booster of confidence than an Apple Store. At a time when retailers are universally in despair, Apple has staffed its stores with a plentitude of alert, helpful and knowledgeable young people who clearly love what they’re doing. Their T-shirts proclaim, “I could talk about this stuff all day,” which does not seem to be an exaggeration. They know what they’re talking about. Problem is, they think that I do too.

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