Selective use of technology

In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin gives a few details of Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s decidedly low-tech life. Souter has no cell phone or voice mail. He does not use email. He was given a television once but never turned it on. He moves his chair around his office throughout the day so he can read by natural light. Toobin says Souter lives something like an eighteenth century gentleman.

I find it refreshing to read of someone like Justice Souter with such independence of mind that he chooses not to use much of the technology that our world takes for granted. I also find it encouraging to see examples of people who do not reject electronics entirely but selectively decide how and whether to use them.

I once had the opportunity to see a talk by the father of computer typography, Donald Knuth. Much to my surprise, his slides were handwritten. The author of TeX didn’t see the need to use TeX for his slides. While he cares about the fine details of how math looks in print, he apparently didn’t feel it was worth the effort to typeset his notes for an informal presentation.

I also think of the late computer scientist Edsgar Dijkstra who wrote with pen and ink, even when writing computer programs.

If you’re reading legal briefs by sunlight, your thoughts will not be exactly the same as they would be if you were reading by fluorescent light. If you’re writing computer programs by hand, you’re not going to think the same way you would if you are pecking on a computer keyboard. (And if you do use a computer, your thinking is subtlety different depending on what program you use.) Technology effects the way you think. The effect is not uniformly better or worse, but it is certainly real.

To shake up your thinking, try going low-tech for a day.

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