Tag Archives: Quotation mark

The Death of Writing

James Fallows points out that not everybody back in 1980 believed the computer would replace the typewriter as a writing implement, and that his prediction that the device would be useful incurred the wrath of, among others, the late David Halberstam. James offered to write some articles on a computer, some on a typewriter, and offer a prize to anyone who could tell the difference. No-one took him up.

I recall Bruce Chatwin saying that he could always tell which books had been written on a word processor and which hadn’t. And, funnily enough, I disagree with James’ assertion that:

As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the “sound” of people’s writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.

I don’t think the ‘sound’ is the issue. The real difference between the two technologies is that a computer transfers some of the creating process from the head to its RAM. Anyone who has written on a typewriter will know that it’s less painful to compose before committing anything to the page, since the price of correction is so high. So the words, once they come out are much more likely to be the final words one uses. Computers meanwhile, allow indefinite revision, so the composition process takes place on the screen.

 I’m not saying one is better, although I think I probably wrote better when I had a typewriter. I used to take more care over my words; I definitely wrote less, too, which has to have been a good thing. When I joined the BBC in 1987, we only had manual typewriters, and my colleagues looked down their nose at my Canon Typestar, which allowed me to compose a line in the tiny LCD before committing it to the paper. In retrospect, I think they were right: My writing went downhill from then on.

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Can Software End Plagiarism?

With all this gadgetry, you’d think that plagiarism was a thing of the past.

OK, it wasn’t plagiarism, more like fiction, but the point is the same: Watching Shattered Glass, the movie about fabulating New Republic ‘journalist’ Stephen Glass, the other night, I couldn’t help wondering why no one had picked up on his lies earlier. I mean this was 1998, so the Internet existed, search engines existed. (The only solution I could reach was that the people who read The New Republic were not that bright, but that can’t be right, it’s the inflight magazine of Air Force One.)

Anyway, according to Editor & Publisher, the technology exists to check plagiarism quite easily. The problem is that newspapers and other publications don’t want to use it. John Barrie, president of iParadigms LLC, is quoted as saying (via the daily news Weblog of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review) that newspapers generally don’t want to use his online detection program to prevent plagiarism because they don’t want to admit there is a problem, reports Editor & Publisher. The software compares documents with databases containing news sources and encyclopedias.

So far the only journalistic use of Barrie’s software has been in revealing that Central Connecticut State University’s president, Richard Judd, plagiarized from several sources (including The New York Times) for an opinion piece he wrote for The Hartford Courant. Barrie is quoted as saying tha ombudsmen and public editors — a common feature nowadays at U.S. papers — are not enough. “It’s essentially as good as doing nothing,” he said. He believes that just having iThenticate around would deter writers from copying material because they know their work will be vigorously checked. 

The company’s website indicates the work they do is mainly for student essays, where the software is “now deterring plagiarism for nearly 6 million students and educators worldwide”. Editor & Publisher says iParadigms was founded in 1996 as a computer program that UC Berkeley researchers used to inspect undergraduate research papers. Folk wanting to use the software pay a $1,000 licensing fee and $10 per page. They then send the document to iThenticate and receive a report within minutes, detailing what (if anything) has been plagiarized and where it originally came from.