Monday, March 02, 2009

The Downside of Technology

Technology is great. I use it everyday. In fact, I'm using technology now to critique the use of technology. That irony isn't lost on me, so save the wise cracks. Having said all that, I also think we are terribly short-sighted to not acknowledge there is some downside - trade off, if you will - to our speeding merrily down the technological freeway.

Here's a case in point: Recently I had the need to duplicate a book that has been out of print for quite some time. I needed this particular book for an assignment I was giving some students, so I had a choice: I could use the old fashioned, labor intensive, data entry method and simply re-type the book in my word processor; or I could do an OCR scan and touch up the formatting.

Which did I choose? Well, . . . I chose both. I started the project the old fashioned way: I was sitting in a semi-comfortable chair with the book propped up on a stand, keyboard at the ready, and pretending they were bifocals, I had my reading glasses perched on my nose in such a way that I could read both both my monitor and the book I was reproducing.

All the physical preparation out of the way, the project was now underway. I read. I mentally processed what I had read. I typed. That was the process. Read. Process. Type. Read. Process. Type. After an hour, I was quite proud of what I had been able to transfer from a dusty old, long out of print book, to a modern technological masterpiece called a MacBook Pro. The long out of print and unavailable book was becoming available for my students. More important, though, was that the process gave me the chance to process the information as I transferred the text from one medium to another. I read and typed; the information was flowing into AND out of my mind.

Admittedly, the process was time consuming. But, my typing was improving on the fly: my speed increased and my mistakes decreased. However, after an hour, I started to think, "This could take a long time. I wonder if I should just scan it and reformat?"

In the end, I decided to scan and reformat the remaining pages. No doubt about it, scanning was MUCH faster than trying to type the text!

However, there was something I didn't consider: by only scanning the documents, I was missing something vital. I wasn't reading or processing the information as I had done previously. And that meant, that after scanning and reformatting, I would need to go back and read the document. Furthermore, simply going back to read the document wouldn't provide the opportunity of output, which typing had. An important (for me) step in the process of mentally "owning" this information was lost in the more technology savvy method.

Here's my conclusion on this unintended experiment: It's true, I saved some time. But, the amount of time I saved was reduced by having to go back and read the material after it had been scanned and reformatted. It's also true, that by leaving out, or greatly reducing, the labor step of the process, I paid a price in my ability to better understand and process the information.

In this process, there definitely was a downside. Now, I don't intend this blog to suggest that I'll never use OCR again. Neither is it intended to suggest that you should not use OCR or other technologies. What it is intended to do is to encourage you and me to fairly consider the wisest use of technology in our daily lives. Fastest isn't always best. And old fashioned isn't always best. Let's use honest discernment when deciding when to use technology.

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