This essay is an introspective review of my experience with technology and how it has shaped and ultimately changed the way I write, communicate, and learn. I will briefly discuss my former role in the periphery of digital media, how I gleaned enough skill to get by but didn’t truly understand the technology, and how my future interaction with digital media may unfold. I see this whole process as a personal evolution.
I begin this story spanning the years 1977 to about 1995 and focus on how digital media was introduced to me in school and how I incorporated the available technology with my studies. In 1995, the same year the Internet emerged, I entered the work force. Suddenly, I found myself in a research, writing, and editing position faced with a new technology that we were expected to use but unsure about how to use it effectively. Finally, I conclude in fall 2004, looking back at nearly a decade of Internet access and a host of other digital media. I will examine how the digital age has transformed the way in which I communicate. How I once viewed anything technology related with apprehension and now choose to embrace digital media not only as a tool of writing but as necessary to an integrated-communications approach in both my social and professional life.
Writing as a Chore
Writing never came naturally to me. I think I resisted it from the beginning. I learned to read in preschool at the age of four, and I still love to read, but writing always seemed like a chore. I remember the endless hours in elementary school practicing writing letters—first in blocky print, then cursive—on that lined paper with the center row of dots. Single words were next, usually in the form of a spelling test, followed closely by diagramming sentences. I was a good student, and good grades were important to me. So, I made sure my penmanship was good and I committed hundreds of word spellings to memory, because that is what I had to do to get an A in each subject. At that time, this is what writing meant to me. I did not view it as creative or as a form of communication. It was simply a necessary means to an end. That end being a good grade in the subject of writing.
Writing journal entries was a regular feature in my seventh-grade English class. We could write about anything we wanted. We started class each day with ten minutes of journal time. These journals stayed in the classroom for the teacher to read whenever she wanted. The act of writing in a journal—without subject-matter direction—really threw me. I didn’t know what to do. Plus, my classmates seemingly took to this immediately, so I felt like there had to be something really wrong with me.
It took me weeks before I could relax enough to allow any sort of creative discourse to occur. But, once I did, it was easy and I started to really enjoy putting words on paper. My journal became an extension of myself. I added fancy paper to it and found pens with interesting colored inks. Sometimes I doodled in the margins. I started looking forward to English class, a subject I previously only tolerated. In hindsight, I realize that my English teacher never graded us on our journals. It was a tool to help us learn the art of writing—as writing, not regurgitation. I’m certain it wasn’t stellar prose but it was totally different from anything labeled “writing” in prior years.
In 1985, I entered the eighth grade. Hand-written reports were no longer acceptable for school. Pencils and pens were still the implements for daily school work, but long-term projects and papers needed to be typed. My family did own a typewriter but it was a manual model that my mother purchased during her college days in the late 60s. It had a sticky, two-toned ribbon that often dried up or slacked on the reel, thus rendering the finished page messy and illegible. It took hours to type a short paper. Luckily, my dad was finishing his master’s degree in the evenings after work. Everything he turned in also needed to be typewritten, so he borrowed an electric typewriter from the office and it resided on the kitchen table for the next four years.
I loved the idea of typing—it was quick and the electric typewriter had a correction button, so erasing and white-out was not necessary. Finally, any flub of the finger could be fixed in an instant. However, I didn’t know how to type. I certainly could not compose as I typed because the act of typing was too much of a mental strain for me to also focus on sentence formation. So, I began any writing project, whether it was for English or a science class, in the same way: first an outline, then notes on index cards, then a hand-written draft. To organize the cards I sat on my bedroom floor and constructed an elaborate ladder of thoughts, sentences, notes, and often diagrams. Then, I could piece together my paper. When my draft was complete, one of my parents would type the finished product for me. The physical act of writing was a very visual process for me. If I skipped that step, I couldn’t compose anything longer than a letter in an organized manner.
Just Getting By
In 1986, my freshman year of high school, my mother insisted that I enroll in a typing class. She rightly saw typing as a skill that anyone needed—especially me, because I’m sure she was tired of typing my assignments. This began the “just get by” phase of my digital evolution. I hated typing class. None of my other high-achieving classmates took this class. The room was filled with rows and rows of avocado green, enormous electric typewriters. We spent an hour a day for two weeks typing combinations of a-s-d-f. I stuck with it for about two months, which coincided with the class learning all of the letters on the keyboard, and then I quit and switched to an art class.
Eventually, I could accurately type about 40 words per minute, and I figured that would suffice. I could type my papers, but as the level of my writing assignments increased, my juvenile typing skills couldn’t keep up. I didn’t learn the numbers on the keyboard, how to set margins, or how to handle superscript and footnotes. Being a visual person, I fudged it by manually adjusting the keyboard to do what I needed it to do. I gleaned just enough proficiency from the only available form of technology to get by. Besides, it didn’t really affect my writing. Writing to me was still a visual process with a pen on paper. A typewriter was just a tool.
Other digital media, available during this time, was almost entirely absent in my home. We didn’t have a microwave or a VCR (VHS) until 1987. Because we lived in a fairly rural area, cable television was not available on our street until late 1988. We didn’t even have a cordless telephone. It was possible that we couldn’t afford it, and I was just oblivious to that fact. Whatever the reason, because it was absent, I deemed it unnecessary. Most of my friend’s fathers were NASA engineers and physicists. Their homes were equipped with all kinds of gadgets and electronic devices, but the kids knew these were off limits—adult stuff. Again, unnecessary for the ways in which we interacted and communicated.
In 1989, as a high school graduation gift, my parents bought me a computer for college. It was a Tandy from Radio Shack. I’m not positive, but I think it was from the 1000 series that ran on MS-DOS. It had a monitor that sat on top of a hard drive the size of a small suitcase with drives for two 5 ¼” disks. The keyboard was separate and there was no mouse. As a bonus, a dot matrix printer and a huge box of fan-folded, track-feed paper were gifts from my grandparents. I didn’t ask for this, and I was confused because I entered college as a music performance major. I didn’t need a computer! What were they thinking? I had no idea how to use a computer, nor did any member of my family. The manual made my eyes glaze over—I remember that the type was gray and there were no graphics at all.
My friend’s older brother, a mechanical engineer, taught me how to format disks and to access a word processing program right before I left for school. I was prepared. I could turn on the computer, load my word processing program with a disk, type notes and papers, and save everything on another disk. I had no concept of saving anything to the hard drive—it scared me because I didn’t understand where or how the information was stored. There was no network, so I got by, knowing just enough to make sure I could use the computer as a word processing tool. This was what computer proficiency meant to me in the early 90s. The computer was a tool separate from communicating and writing. Something I had to use, (hey, it was easier than a typewriter) that would be part of society, but would not every really affect my daily life.
In fall 1991, I transferred to Michigan State University from James Madison University. This was a huge step for me, as I moved to a completely unknown place four times the size of my previous school. The lecture halls were gigantic compared to my 20-person classroom at JMU. The instructors used projected notes on a screen, not a blackboard. They often wore microphones. Everything seemed more technologically advanced to me. I set up my computer on the day I moved in, and for the first time, started to use it for basic organization of my school work. I made a calendar system—something I pieced together in a document, printed out, and stuck all over my walls. I created diagrams of chemical cycles, without realgraphics, just type. I printed them, color-coded them with highlighters, and taped them to the ceiling above my loft so I could study as I drifted off to sleep.
The way I was taking in and storing information was changing with the use of my computer. I no longer outlined writing projects or took notes on index cards. I made digital study guides for each exam from written notes. However, when writing a paper for an English class, I still reverted to the long-hand approach and typed my edited product. I viewed writing for science as an analysis of data or the reporting of facts. I didn’t view the writing I did for English as an analysis; it was more the communication of my ideas. My computer was still a writing tool to me but it was starting to become an organizational implement as well.
In 1993, two classes shy of a zoology degree, I changed my major. I decided that I wanted to pursue an editorial career. For the first time in college, I began to enjoy my classes. I loved the discourse present in an English class. I loved that people could have different ideas and they weren’t wrong, just different. Writing completely changed for me. I started to notice how compelling words and language could affect people. I began to use the computer for brainstorming and as a word-processing tool. Because it recorded everything, I could run with ideas and piece them together on the page as I wrote. In a matter of weeks, I could no longer sit at a desk with a notebook and construct a paper. The computer became my preferred composition tool.
If I had graduated in 1994 with my zoology degree, I would have missed the introduction to the Internet and email entirely while at college. However, by the time the Internet came to MSU, I was completing foreign language and English requirements, which did not lead me toward the Internet. Freshmen were being introduced to this “new media” but not people toward the end of their degree. MSU had the Gopher system in place before I graduated but I didn’t have a computer that connected to any server so I never used it. I would have had to go to a computer lab to use my email account and I had no reason to with a computer in my apartment already. No one I knew “surfed” the Web or emailed each other, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything important. I graduated in 1995, still using my Tandy and 5 ¼” floppy disks.
My Twelve-Step Program
I entered the scholarly publishing world as a copyediting coordinator for the University of Michigan Press in 1996. Every editor had a computer connected to a “shared” drive for the office where we could store documents for public access. I received an email address with my employee ID at orientation. I had never used email before. I was thrust into a digital environment that I had no idea how to navigate. I was really intimidated. So were my co-workers, but it took me a few weeks to realize that no one else around me knew how to use this new media either.
I had no reason to use the computer at work unless it was to write a letter or generate a printing quote. For nearly two years, I worked with paper manuscripts and edited in color-coded pencil: green for graphic coding, blue for editorial changes, red for author alterations, and purple for graphic placement. (I actually still dream about marking up a manuscript using the wrong colored pencil, but that’s another paper.) The graphic coordinator handled the production, which was just beginning to make the transition from a manual to digital process. I touched, very lightly, on the edges of print technology so I would know enough lingo and facts to make the vendors think I knew what was going on. It was like memorizing the atomic chart—“print stages, a twelve-step program.”
One of my routine duties was fact-checking manuscript sections that my acquisitions editor identified. We had one computer per team that was connected to the Internet. Every team member could check their email and surf the Web for work-related research. It was really slow. I can’t recall which search engine we used, but it produced totally inappropriate and often useless material. The server also crashed with regularity.
Email, on the other hand, was like candy to me. What a wonderful thing. I think email was the first form of digital media that really changed the way I communicate. It improved my keyboarding speed and accuracy. I could communicate with my authors, who were mainly on the West coast, in a very efficient manner. We could send text changes back and forth, saving days of production time. I reconnected with friends from college and high school. I could literally spend hours just on email. Unlike the Internet, it was easy to use. The downside was I couldn’t get email at home. It wasn’t available in my apartment complex, and my Tandy was no longer advanced enough.
It was apparent that technology was a “must-have” thing for my office. No one really knew what to do with it, but they knew they needed to have it. In late 1996, we printed our first book with computer-to-plate technology. It was clear that digital media was streamlining the printing process. And it all happened in what seemed like a whirlwind moment—that I missed somehow. It made me nervous. I had always managed to get by, to glean little bits of technology in order to do my work, but this seemed bigger. My vision of book editing no longer fit the atmosphere I was in, and I didn’t like it. In addition, my coworkers were extremely resistant to technological change. They wanted to preserve the “old way” of production. Because of this I was truly concerned that launching a career in the book industry would be a dead end.
In the fall of 1997, I returned to East Lansing and went to work for the Michigan State Medical Society as the managing editor of their monthly magazine. Magazine production was very different from that of books. It was fast-paced and constantly changing and I took to it immediately. Writing was no longer mundane. Now I was interviewing, researching, and shaping the message of an entire publication. It was exciting. Editing became more interactive as well and often involved recrafting a lead or rearranging sentences for greater impact. I wrote on a daily basis and for the first time, entirely on a computer. I found that I typed faster than I could write, so I recorded interviews and transcribed the tape on the computer.
Digital technology was further along with this industry in the late 90s, and the magazine was prepared digitally and sent to the printer on zip disks. The advertisements, however, were still manually placed with camera-ready art. I didn’t understand the graphic design or printing process. When the editor retired and I was hired to take over, I quickly realized that I needed to learn the production process intricately so I could properly manage the magazine staff and budget. So, my “digital education” became very concentrated in the area of print production.
Within a year, I cut over $36,000 from my budget by streamlining the graphic and editorial process. By 1999, I required all of our advertisers to produce digital ad files, or we would recreate their file for them at their expense. After that, we could print the entire magazine computer-to-plate, thus saving more money and a week of production time. My superiors, who didn’t really understand this “new” technology, thought I was a genius. I felt triumphant—and in this one tiny corner of digital media, I still do feel like I am on top of the latest technology, but it takes a great deal of effort because it’s constantly evolving.
In the years that followed, I decided to move back to MSU, first to the College of Business and finally, to University Relations in the Creative Services area. My duties as an editor haven’t changed drastically, but my role has. As I mature in my career, I view communications in a holistic way, incorporating print publications with digital media. More than a decade of editorial experience has proven to me that an integrated approach to writing and communication is absolutely essential to craft an effective message in today’s society. Digital technology has shaped the way I communicate, both personally and professionally. I can no longer ignore, or be intimidated by it. But, I have a great deal of catching up to do.
For most of my adult life, I avoided incorporating digital technology into everyday activities. At first, it was for financial reasons—starting salary for editors is below the poverty line. A new computer, an Internet connection, and a PDA were things I couldn’t afford. However, as my finances improved, I still resisted getting connected. I had email and an Internet connection at work, and that seemed like enough “connectivity” for me. I didn’t want to give up my privacy, and I thought that being available and reachable at all times, whether it was via email or cell phone, was not necessary. I never saw how staying connected could actually improve communication and allow me to be more efficient with my time.
Now that I have a home Internet connection and a cell phone, I find the act of communication less stressful and more efficient. I stay in touch with friends and family more regularly and our interaction is very personal. Email has become such a mainstay in our lives that distance no longer seems like a barrier. At work, it’s equally important, and hard to imagine what the office was like before email existed. I can communicate directly with a client across campus, or deliver a file to a printer in Traverse City without leaving my office. With the connection to the server, I can art-direct a photo shoot without leaving my desk and press-check a publication from any remote location. It’s fascinating.
My writing has become multifaceted as I embrace more elements of digital media. It’s not just about learning how to use the media available but now writing becomes a living thing within that media. I don’t think simply about flat words on a page any longer. I can visualize how writing can grow to fit into digital spaces and how those words can reach readers differently as those spaces change. I feel that digital media has allowed the written word to become more powerful and fluid. And, I have a desire to learn how to make my writing malleable to each individual space.
At work, I see the integration of Web development and editorial/publications as an exciting possibility and hope to gain enough knowledge to help bring that to fruition. At present, the two units reside in different locations under separate management. There is literally no collaboration on projects. I see this as a serious deficiency. Text development is not a part of the Web development in my office. It is my goal to suggest that a more integrated approach to Web and publication development is necessary. As our office is in a transition period, it would be a perfect time to affect this change. In order to help foster this relationship, I need to develop a better understanding of writing for digital spaces.
This transformation in thinking is very recent for me. I think the readings, assignments, and discussions from our class have really helped me analyze my feelings about digital media and get over some of my apprehension. It’s a scary thing to rely so much on something you don’t understand, but I am ready to find a way to make technology work for me. Until recently, I stayed in the periphery of digital media. I gleaned just enough information to get by in society and at work but not enough to understand the technology or have it deeply connected to my life. I’m ready to embrace digital media so I can shape my writing and communication practices as technology evolves. I am excited to see what the next decade has to offer.