March 19, 2004

Yesterday's technology tomorrow

Slogans are small pieces of language designed to be catchy and to provoke thought. Often they succeed, sometimes but not always in the way intended. Today I saw on a truck (I don't even know which company's truck) the slogan


And I suddenly realized that is the exact opposite of what I want. I don't want tomorrow's technology today. I want yesterday's technology tomorrow. I want old things that have stood the test of time and are designed to last so that I will still be able to use them tomorrow. I don't want tomorrow's untested and bug-ridden ideas for fancy new junk made available today because although they're not ready for prime time the company has to hustle them out because it's been six months since the last big new product announcement. Call me old-fashioned, but I want stuff that works.

Shall I tell you how The Cambridge Grammar of English was prepared? (I am not changing the subject; trust me.) The book is huge: 1,859 printed pages. The double-spaced manuscript was about 3,500 pages (yes, it actually had to be printed out and written on by a copy editor the old-fashioned way). It took over ten years to write. And it was done using WordPerfect 6 for DOS. Rodney Huddleston chose to upgrade to that around 1989, wrote a couple of hundred complex macros, and stuck with it. I learned the WP DOS macro language in order to collaborate on the project.

WordPerfect was basically in its final, completed form before Clinton first ran for office. It works. The file format is fine for authors, and records everything we need to record. Rodney and I are still using WP6 file format today to write our planned student's introduction to English grammar. In all the years since the late 1970s, WordPerfect has not altered the file format: all the largely pointless upgrades in the program have been backward compatible. The format really does the job. But things are different with the WordPerfect program itself. The progress has largely been backward.

The things we have noticed about version differences are minor, but they all tell in the same direction: every upgrade is a downgrade. Version 5.1 is widely acknowledged by WP fans to have been superb except for not having graphics screen WYSIWYG capability. WP6-DOS added that graphics capability, but at least one neat thing that Rodney needed to do with a macro for generating packages of unique example-numbering labels (don't ask me to explain) turned out to be no longer possible with version 6. I had version 6.1 for Windows, a fine program except that it requires the use of the dreadful Windows OS. When I started using WP version 8 recently for greater compatibility with a newer (and worse) version of Windows that I had to get because I needed compatibility with DSL software, it was with reluctance. Well-founded reluctance: I found that version 8 always crashed if I ever used the spelling checker, and its file management system is much worse than that of 6.1. The spell-checker bug is deep, apparently (I tried standard published fixes and reinstalling of files). So version 8 is worse than version 6.

I did try version 10 for a day, because it came with the new Windows machine, but it became corrupted during its first attempt to access a printer driver and never worked again. No help from the machine's manufacturer (HP) or the software company (Corel) could fix things. I had to remove version 10 completely (and couldn't re-install, because of a new improved system that has a second hard disk with a copy of the system as it came from the factory, and you can wipe your disk and re-install with that, but everything you ever did is then wiped out).

Here's what I'm telling you (you may have lost the drift). The upgrade from WordPerfect version 5.1 to 6.0 lost some functionality for Rodney. Upgrading from version 6.1 for Windows to version 8 for Windows lost me the use of the spelling checker and made the file management worse. Upgrading to version 10 lost even the ability to print and crashed so badly that the machine had to be rebooted. Every upgrade has lost some important functionality. No upgrade since version 6 for DOS (which added screen graphics) has added anything I needed. Every upgrade is a downgrade.

WordPerfect still struggles on. They have announced version 12. It will add features that version 11 didn't need, and will contain bugs version 11 didn't suffer from.

Recently I noticed that Adobe's Acrobat Reader was warning me that I really should ditch version 5 and upgrade to version 6 as soon as possible and would I please just click here to do so. Thank heaven I asked my expert friend Adam before doing so. Adam told me that version 6 is a catastrophe for his work: it runs slow, the Find mechanism has been redesigned and is now hopeless... He had to reinstall version 5 to be able to go on doing his work.

Notice, I'm no Luddite. I don't reject technology. I depend on it. I'm deeply versed in many kinds of technology, information-age and other. What I'm talking about is an insatiable urge on the part of the people designing it to upgrade it to something worse. I could illustrate from any aspect of my technological life. For example, the new integrated Inter-Library Loan (ILL) system was introduced today at my university and there is lost functionality for the user (they are completely explicit about it: "On March 22, 2004, as part of a UC system-wide change, UCSC ILL will be migrating its current ILL management software into a system-wide management system. As a result, there will be noticeable changes to our on-line services... Unfortunately, the new system does not yet have a patron self-service interface. Beginning 3/22/04, the Patron Self Service (Manage Your Requests) Interface, which includes renewals, re-requests, ILL request tracking and cancellations, will need to be done over the phone or at the ILL service desk..."). We have a new email server too. It's terrible; migration to it has been temporarily halted. Unknown numbers of messages have been completely lost.

I could go on. I could grip you by the arm like the Ancient Mariner and tell about about non-information technology: about bathtubs and basins that won't hold the water in because instead of a rubber disc on a chain they have a $200 chrome assembly with hidden moving parts that leaks slowly when closed and won't drain well when open. I could tell you about electric kettles that used to switch themselves off when the water boiled but now with the new improved electronic sensor it doesn't work and they carry on boiling until your kitchen is full of steam. I could tell you about...

What? This is Language Log? Oops. Sorry. I thought I was writing on the new wide-open blog for curmudgeons, (You may have a little trouble connecting to their site; they just migrated to a new and improved server.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 19, 2004 12:52 PM