Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Losing it if not using it

handwriting_crop.jpgA thread on one of my email lists was started by the observation of one correspondent, a writer, that his ability to read from paper media seemed to be declining - he, half-kidding, wondered if he should scan his paper documents so he could read them from a screen.

His thought to scan the book reminded me of an experience I had 13 (?) years ago... I was working at Apple and was introduced to Gary Starkweather in Apple's Advanced Technology Group. Apple was flush in those days and ATG was a group of 'mad computer scientists' who could write themselves pretty much any size check they wished.

Gary, the legend who had invented the LaserWriter concept when he was at Xerox Park, could especially do pretty much anything he wanted. That year ('95 I think) he contended, magnetic storage would become exactly the same price as paper storage, and would thereafter become much cheaper. To better learn to deal withe the coming paperless future, Gary had a small army of recent MIT and Carnegie Mellon grads scan in *everything* he read - his bills, his daily newspaper, magazines, books, mail, you name it - for the whole year.

He read everything on a Duo laptop or his home or work desktop Macs. I asked him if it was tedious and he answered that it wasn't as bad as it sounded. He challenged me to read a book-length document on a computer, so I bought (in the employee store) the Voyager (remember them?) hypercard (remember that technology?) edition of William Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy, which I read on my PowerBook Duo (remember the 25 MHz 68030-based Duo?) while on vacation, sitting on the porch of an old ranch house in the Anderson Valley.

He was right, it wasn't that bad. These days, as I read most books on a Kindle and almost everything shorter on my netbook or desktop, I see the prescience of Gary's experiment.

To my colleague's point about losing paper skills (he note his handwriting was getting bad, too), I've noted the same phenomenon. Norman Doidge addresses this in his book on neuroplasticity "The Brain that Heals Itself" - it really is 'use it or lose it.' When using some skill less often, the brain diverts resources to those things that are done more often - we really do get 'rusty'...as you can see in my handwritten to-do list...

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