Ancient Essays & Etc.

ALL THE YOUNG FAUSTS

Many of the high technology firms in Silicon Valley encourage their employees to dress up for Halloween. Mine is no different. At least a hundred and fifty of us, more than half of the company, donned masks, came in drag, wore elaborate makeup and costume, or tore our clothes and greased our hair in imitation of punk rockers. It was great fun, and the personnel manager felt she had succeeded in raising our morale.

Then why am I depressed?

I came as Mephistopheles. My wife spent a half-hour making up my face. I had a dark cape. My hair was black and slicked back. I looked, I must say, foreboding.

When I arrived at work everyone was thrilled that I had gone to such lengths. The first people who saw me, the women in the accounting department, made quite a fuss. They said I made a devastating Dracula. Or was it Wolfman?

Now, I didn’t mind being miscast. After all, my costume did not come from the dressing rooms of Hollywood, but from my own meagre closets. I corrected them in a friendly way.

“I am Mephisto,” I said.

Their faces went blank.

“Mephistopheles.”

More blankness.

“Faust? Doctor Faustus? Christopher Marlowe? Goethe?”

The stared at me uncomprehendingly.

I explained the literary allusion of my costume and they were very interested, glad to know. When we parted I excused their ignorance (in my elitist, sexist snobbery) by saying to myself, “Those were just the girls in accounting. Why should they know anything about English and German literary tradition?” Why indeed.

My depression lingers not because of that first encounter, but because my day was filed with blank faces. Not one–not a single employee–knew Mephistopheles from third base. Again, I didn’t mind being praised for my likeness to Dracula (or Wolfman), but when corrected, everyone, without exception, said, “Who’s Mephistopheles?”

These are not uneducated people. After a while I kept track of those who did not know: an MBA from Stanford, two MBAs from Santa Clara University, a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve, a business major from Boston University, a BSEE from Kansas State, a Masters from Columbia, a BA from San Diego State, a BSCS from the University of North Carolina, a BA from the University of Wisconsin. The list goes on.

The one thing all these people have in common, besides their ignorance of Mephisto, is their involvement in high technology. These people are, as they like to say, the “shakers and movers” of tomorrow’s technology, tomorrow’s economy, tomorrow’s society. Having been involved with high technology for more than five years now, and noting the glamour, appeal and undue influence it has on society, I fear they may be right.

High technology and the scientific achievement that drives it, seems to be enough for them. The knowing and understanding of literature and the arts is irrelevant to them. As one young computer science genius said to me after I had explained (for the umpteenth time) just who Mephistopheles was, “I didn’t study any of that stuff. It wasn’t important.”

I suppose I could have rationalized that the Mephisto character was an obscure aberration in Western thought, but that’s not so. He is critical to our tradition of defining good and evil, right and wrong, commitment and deception, justice and salvation. The idea of Mephistopheles fueled the imaginations of Marlowe, Goethe, Mozart, Shaw, and Mann, among others. When our young “shakers and movers” of tomorrow believe such work to be “unimportant,” what does that tell us about our future?

Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT, wrote in his book Computer Power and Human Reason that science “has virtually delegitimatized all other ways of understanding.” He added that contemporary literature and art, once the educated person’s foundation for “intellectual nourishment and understanding,” have become “perceived largely as entertainments.” We have, in other words, become hoodwinked by science and technology.

Our new generation of technologists does not seem to bother with literary tradition and the intellectual dilemmas that provoke great art. To them, the world and those of us who dwell in it can be reduced to a knowable formula, computed and filed. There is no room for questions without answers, ideas that don’t fit into the equation. What they know is. What they don’t know isn’t.

Perhaps through the tools of science and technology Mephistopheles has bargained for the souls of all our young Fausts. Perhaps he has finally won.

[2011 © Mark Everett Hall. Written in 1983; first published in The North American Review, March 1984; translated and published in Die Zeit, 18 October 1988; anthologized in The Literature of Work, 1991. Adapted for radio.]

THE PROMISCUOUS ITALICS

It was the Sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary who first taught me that some words are more important than others. It began in the first grade with a bit of propaganda I learned to write atop each paper I’d hand in to the nuns at my parochial school in California for the next eight years. We were instructed to neatly print the phrase “All for Jesus through Mary” one-half inch below the upper edge of every page. On the occasions when we used blank sheets of paper, we carefully underlined those words with our sturdy wooden rulers. I think it was Sister Kenneth, my second grade teacher in 1958, who explained that we were writing a prayer and that when we underlined it we should be thinking about the wonder of the Virgin Mary. To a six-year old, the phrase was meaningless enough, but it was utterly impossible to concentrate on Jesus’s mom while keeping your pencil in line with the ruler because we all very quickly learned that Sister Kenneth held you more accountable for the straightness of your line than for the purity of your mind.

To the Roman Catholic Church, which only in 1950 had declared as an infallible doctrine of faith for all its members what it called the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, that is, Mary, like her son Jesus, was taken in her human form into heaven,  “All for Jesus through Mary” was one small part of the global marketing of Mary. However, after writing it down hundreds, even thousands of times, the words became less than meaningless, they became a burden, a waste of time, especially after the same Sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary taught us that other words besides “All for Jesus through Mary” deserved to be underlined.

Book titles, for instance.

Sometime in the fourth or fifth grade one of the nuns told her pupils that in proper English grammar the title of a book was always written in italics to distinguish it from ordinary words. Italics designated the words as special, inevitably drawing your attention among all the other words you might see on a page. But since we, mere kids in our gunmetal and polished hickory desks, were not typesetters and word processing software had not yet been invented, we were taught to underline the names of books. “It is the same as italics,” our good nun intoned.

Shocking words, to me at least. From then on whenever I wrote “All for Jesus through Mary” I imagined the letters leaning to the right, italicized like the name of a book. Important, just like books.

By equating our painstakingly underlined prayer to Mary Mother of God with, oh, say, Peyton Place or A Stone for Danny Fisher, titles I had seen printed in newspapers and spied on paperbacks piled on nighttables, and even secretly had read dogeared pages, so that ultimately the elegant italics robbed the hand-hewned underlined prayer of its special potency.  A book? A prayer? Was there a difference? Grammar made me doubt it. Even the nuns seemed to bow to grammar.

From then on I was beguiled by words separated from the pack of everyday verbiage with graceful italics. I quickly understood italic type was not reserved for prayers or books. It was very catholic (small c, please) and many words deserved the bent letters. In some places it was movie titles or television show names that leaned right. In others, poems were italicized top to bottom. Foreign words and phrases needed italics. Emphasis and irony became candidates for italics as I grew older. Everything, in fact, was ripe for an italics.

Obviously, italic words had long predated “All for Jesus through Mary.” Encyclopedia Britainnica pegs their arrival to 1500 when Bolognese typecutter Francesco Griffo designed the typeface for a Venetian printer who used it first in a 1501 Latin edition of the work from the pagan poet Virgil. Italics like anything has always had its devotees. Shakespeare used it, though most of his published work “normalizes” his original text and leaves it out, though scholars still like to debate its significance. William Wordsworth is said to have thought the typeface helpful in giving the reader visual clues into his poetry and worked closely with his printer to assure only the most important words were in italics. Of course, when Wordsworth sent his manuscript to his printer he underlined those vital words.

What would a wondrous wordsmith like Wordsworth have done with the visual possibilities a poet can infuse into poetry and type these digital days? It’s exciting to consider. But to those of us less talented, we have been forced to pick our way through minefields of methods to make words italic once we left our pencils and rulers behind.

When I learned to type rendering italics required mastering the typewriter’s platen, the black cylinder that you rolled paper through to hold it in place. First, you shifted the platen a half-notch up, centering the guide on the first letter in the word to be italicized then hitting the underline key until the last letter was resting atop the straight black line.

The typewriter, supposedly a technological leap beyond handwriting, was not as good as using a ruler or even just eyeballing your underline. If you did not shift the platen correctly the underline could go right through the word, ruining the italics effect. It also took much more time than by hand.

Like most of us, I jettisoned the typewriter as soon as computers made writing–or, at least, editing and revising–an easier process, except, perhaps, in handling italics. As it turns out the slutty italics lets itself be laid on the page in many ways.

Most PC users bend their words using Microsoft’s Word software. The company estimates about 400 million people use the product and virtually every one of them know that by highlighting text with a click of the computer’s mouse and hitting the “Control” and “I” keys simultaneously the letters become italicized. It’s so common that many other programmers have adopted the keystroke combo in their software for applications such as e-mail. For some people Control-I is the only way they know how to italicize their thoughts.

But there is no standard method. As a writer I’ve encountered many ways. In the early 1980s I put together a collection of short stories using a program called Troff. To get italic text you needed to put the cursor on a new line, type .I, move the cursor to the next line, type what needs to be in italics, hit return, and on the next line type .I again, and then move to a new line and write whatever is next. So it looked like this:

.I

italic words go here.

.I

And like this, the words were not actually italicized on the computer screen. You had to take it on faith that when you printed it the device would recognized that the first .I instructed the printer to start italicizing everything until it saw the next .I, at which point it reverted to roman text. There were literally hundreds of commands that you could put in a document, making it all but impossible to proof your original work on the screen.

That was back in the PC stone age, so you might think that such falderol ended with the triumph of Microsoft Word. But you’d be wrong. A couple years ago my publisher bought  new software called K4, which is a customized version of Adobe InCopy software. K4 helps publishers prepare their stories once for use both in print and on a Web site. It’s supposed to be state of the art.

Unless you want text to be italics.

Control-I won’t work. Instead, you need to highlight your text, move the cursor over to a special box on the screen, hit the tab called “Characters,” pulldown the menu, choose italics, and the text will obey. You then need to pulldown the menu again and switch back to roman. If that weren’t complicated enough, you need to start and end each word or phrase to be in italics with <I>. Like this: It is a <I>very<I> stupid process.

(By the way, to get “very” in the paragraph above to be italics using Pages, the relatively new software I use from Apple, I needed to type Command-I instead of Control-I because Mac users must type, if not think different.)

Despite having to chase the unfaithful italics my entire life, my love affair with it continues to this day. Sadly, the neat, efficient approach taught to me by the nuns is mostly irrelevant. For years technology has constantly forced me to learn new ways to seduce my words to bend gently to the right on the page. Italics, it seems, has a wandering eye and will never be satisfied with just one master, just one way. But I will always be true to italics, offering it only my most important words.

[© Mark Everett Hall. Written in 2007.]

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

We no longer have information access but rather information excess and a massive pollution problem in the making. The landfills of our minds are brimming beyond capacity. If something is not done soon, we will need a Superfund of the intellect to clean up the muck in our heads.

Every other major industry is responding to environmental concerns. The soft drink industry has joined in efforts to recycle plastic bottles. Fast-food providers are eliminating the egregious use of offensive packaging. The painful exception to this spreading awareness of the need for conservation is in the information industry.

Information is manufactured at dizzying rates in all corners of the globe. There are no controls on it. Oh, some might say that information is restricted in China or South Africa. Not so. Information is plentiful in those countries. It’s truth that’s in short supply. Propaganda contributes to the information glut as much as a 350-page printout for accounts payable.

There is no escaping the intrusion of information in our lives. The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are now delivered along with the local paper in Dubuque, Iowa.

And that’s not the worst of it. Time magazine’s recent cover story on junk mail observed that the billions of tons of unrequested gaudy paper Americans receive each year is considered information by some misguided individuals.

It’s everywhere

Of course, if a picture is worth a thousand words, television is the googolplex of information pollution. As our globe-trotting former president, Jimmy Carter, recently noted with questionable pride, no mater what remote Third World locale he wanders in, his fellow Georgian, Ted Turner, beams down 24-hour-per-day information through CNN.

George Bush promised to be our “environmental president.” On the information issue, however, he has failed miserably. For a time he held firm, recycling one phrase — “read my lips” — over and over. While pressed on issues of taxing while jogging he altered only one letter: “Read my hips.” This restraint nobly showed his information environmentalism. And while he held to it, he had the support of his party and the electorate. But when he went on television and tried to explain at length why he had changed his mind, his support collapsed.

Information pollution can not only damage politicians, but it can also wreck the economy. The savings and loan fiasco has been around for years. Suddenly we know about it, and it’s a crisis that won’t go away.

To avert a catastrophic information-overload crisis, voluntary restraint is necessary. Otherwise, just as the public suddenly came to demand less pollution in its air, water, and earth, there will be a draconian backlash against the information rubbish that is dumped into our heads.

Information systems managers are clearly not the only, or even necessarily the worst, culprits, but they will suffer much of the backlash. IS departments are likely to become battlegrounds for the new age of information ecology. Why? Because the very term “data processing” reeks of information excess: reports, forms, input and output.

It is inevitable that IS managers will be portrayed as information wastrels who are unable to hold back the flow of data muck. Clarion calls for a new cabinet-level information secretary will be heard.

To get ahead of this reactionary wave, the information industry must take the road of self-restraint. This will have to be a many-pronged effort. In book publishing, for example, thick volumes of questionable and redundant information ought to be foresworn. Instead of producing twenty-odd competing dictionaries, maybe Random House, Webster’s, Oxford, and American Heritage could put their heads together and produce one book that does the job right.

Like publishers, IS professionals must unearth new ways to bury data. Eliminating report redundancy is a good start, but eliminating whole reports would be even better. (You’ve always doubted whether your clients actually read them anyway.)

If self-control isn’t enough to do the whole job, federal funding can be earmarked to help IS professionals relinquish their information dependency. Like some farmers, programmers can be paid to let their code grow fallow. And people who request new reports, can be quietly whisked into rehabilitation clinics for info addicts.

It behooves the information industry to act now. Before the boycotts. Before the marches and the protests. Before “ignorance is bliss” becomes a major political issue.

[© Mark Hall. Written in 1990. First published Computerworld, February 11, 1991.]

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