Kirby: Warning: No words were written in writing this column
By Robert Kirby
Tribune ColumnistFirst published Aug 20 2013 01:01AM
I wrote my first newspaper column on a manual Royal typewriter. It was state-of-the-art technology then. Looking back, I might just as well have been scratching on the wall of a cave.
It was old-school keyboarding. I had to hit an individual key with enough force to move a rod that flung an engraved metal letter against an ink-saturated ribbon hard enough to make an imprint on the paper.
If I typed too fast, the levers jammed and had to be cleared manually. The only automatic part of the process was a small bell signaling the approach of a margin, whereupon the carriage was returned by hand.
Writing then was a noisy business. It sounded something like this: "Clack. Clack. Clack. Oops! Click. #*%! Clack. Clack. Ding!"
And all of that just for one word. Since there were approximately 600 of those in a column, small wonder, then, that so many early writers were opium addicts and/or crazy.
Later I made the quantum technological leap to an electric typewriter. It was still loud but there were no jams and every tap of the keyboard registered a perfect character strike.
Correcting mistakes was easier. I was enthralled by the electronic ability to "white out" typos with a magical backspace key. I once made an entire paragraph disappear just by writing it backward. Could being a columnist get any less labor intensive?
You bet. By the mid-’80s came computerized word processing, with all the wonders of spell checking, cutting and pasting and word counting.
I didn’t think it could get better, but then Al Gore invented the Internet. Not only did I not need a typewriter or a dictionary to write, I didn’t even need paper. Or a desk.
There was still a ways to go. Despite all the advances in writing, I still had to use my brain (such as it is). For example, if I wanted to type "endometriosis," I not only had to know how to generally spell it, but also type in every single letter of the word.
The computer didn’t offer up a selection of alternative words. If I was typing "I think my dog has endo-" the screen didn’t suggest "endoscope" or "endogomy."
It does now. Type in the letter "I" and my computer instantly suggests "I’ll, I’m, I’d, In, Is, Idiot." You just hit the key for the one you want. I recently wrote a 50 word email with just 50 keystrokes, and it made sense. Mostly.
With all those advances, there was still one common element: the keyboard. I was still banging away at one. So everything was just a variation on the theme of that old manual Royal.
Not anymore. Yesterday, I wrote this entire column — including the word "#*%!" — by just talking into a microphone. Using voice-activated software I was able to mutter my way to deadline without once touching a keyboard.
And the software "learns" in order to establish a profile of me as a writer. Not only does it compensate for the way I talk, but also for the words I prefer. For example, it no longer writes "eureka" when I say "urethra" or "barracks Alabama" when I mention the president.
I’m thinking eventually writers won’t even have to say anything. We’ll get to the point where our nostrils double as USB flash drives. I’ll be able to go to work just by plugging in.
I won’t even have to think up a topic for a column. The software program will automatically mine the stuff in my head and come up with a column on its own.
Then again, maybe that’s a step backward.