Thursday, September 29, 2005


the loss of precision

Few people are capable of mental arithmetic anymore. Calculators have deskilled us. That would hardly seem to matter, except that many people can't even understand what the approximate answer to a numeric problem should be, to know if they have done the calculation properly. I can't count (without the aid of a calculator) the number of times a store clerk has produced a ridiculous calculation, and has had no awareness of how absurd the answer is. If you suggest that the calculation is wrong, they simply re-key the same incorrect sequence of numbers and operations, to produce the same wrong answer. They act as though you are stupid for doubting a calculator. For example, a constant problem is when a store advertises an extra 10% off already marked down prices. It seems no one who is paid a store clerk wage is able to figure the math for that.

A similar phenomenon is happening with spelling. For people who rarely write with pen and paper, spelling becomes more difficult. I have never been a good speller myself, but I realize that very few people really are. Few people know spelling rules anymore. Spell checkers have saved us much effort, but have become a crutch. We have stopped thinking about how words are composed, and speech has become disconnected from writing. I am not a linguist, but I suspect our pronunciation is gradually becoming less grounded in how a word is spelled. We are dropping syllables as we say words we long longer need to think about spelling.

The next big shift will happen as voice recognition matures to allow speaker-independent input in noisy environments. With that, we may finally stop writing altogether, expect for formal pieces. Dictation will change how we relate to words. If voice recognition is accurate enough that we don't need to watch a screen as we talk, we may end up rambling, just as we do in ordinary speech. But we won't have a companion who asks questions to check the meaning of the rambling. If our relationship to words become more oral, then we run the risks that accompany slang. People mimic words and phrases without a proper understanding of what the phrase is intended to mean. I notice people often use slang phrases in the exact opposite way they were intended.

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