Vol. XXII, No. 3
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January, 2010

Know Your Choices

Harrison Eiteljorg, II
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

As digital technologies advance, new ideas come and go. Some stick around and become transformative -- email (perhaps a poor example if SMS and IM replace it), the web -- while others may vanish altogether -- Compuserve® (OK; it's not completely gone, but . . . ) -- be consigned to a discrete area -- LexisNexis® -- or just become irrelevant to most users as they slip out of the main stream -- LINUX.

The surprising -- to me -- thing about the new ideas that arrive with such regularity is how often the same mistakes are made by the potential users. There are those who can be counted on to jump on the bandwagon at the first possible moment and others who can be counted on to discount anything new and different. Fortunately, most of us live in the middle and are willing to use new ideas when convinced that there are good and cogent reasons to do so.

For those of intent upon sharing information on the web, this is an important point. It is all too easy to sit back and watch the new technologies that arrive, critically appraise them, and dismiss them without further ado. It is also easy to jump on the bandwagon, spend the time required learning to use the new gizmo, and make that new gizmo a part of the standard tool kit. It is more difficult to keep tabs on the new techniques/technologies, learn enough about them to appraise them, analyze the benefits and shortcomings, and only then decide whether to join the parade or stand and watch it pass.

Today's situation is not all that different; it's just that the changes come faster -- and faster. Being left behind as times change has never been comfortable or wise, and the bleeding edge is ever an uncomfortable place for those who march too quickly to the latest tune.1

No matter when you employ a new technology, each new technology can be used well or ill, even when applied to its prime setting and even when the user has waited until the value of the new tools has been well demonstrated. That is, jumping on the bandwagon is not enough. One must take the time to learn how to use the new tool well.

Let me stress that point -- "One must take the time to learn how to use the new tool well." When was the last time you saw a good PowerPoint® presentation? Or have you ever seen one? When was the last time you saw a truly wretched PowerPoint presentation? Was it that last time you saw a PowerPoint presentation? I'm not trying to knock PowerPoint with the foregoing; the same could be said of Apple's version of presentation software, Keynote®, or the OpenOffice version. These packages truly excel at helping improve a good presentation. However, does that mean using words on screen, coupled with images to be sure, to tell your audience what you are, uh, telling your audience. Do you really want to tell your audience with text what you are telling them with speech?

Despite the obvious question: "Why not just hand the audience a paper?" my experience suggests that the most common use of PowerPoint is to let the audience read what the speaker intends to say. This is NOT because PowerPoint is a poor tool. Quite the opposite. It's a superb tool, as are its rivals from other software makers. The problem is not the software; it's the user.

A similar example is the proliferation of Flash presentations on the web. Again and again the computer magazines use Flash presentations to avoid writing something informative. I have learned, after some trials, that any time there is a list of items -- new software, laptops, cell phones -- to be discussed, compared, rated, or simply described, the odds are that the "article" will be a one-paragraph (or less) introduction to a Flash presentation with a series of quite useless and uninformative images instead of anything that might be called intelligent comment. Strike that. No comment at all most of the time, intelligent or not. Therefore, I employ a Flash protector. (Could this be a descendent of the infamous pocket protector?) It prevents Flash files from being downloaded until I specifically request that. I rarely do. In this case, I see laziness and cheap editors at work. Reporters do not need to write, just throw in some images that seem to do the job. Editors then do not need to pay the reporters to write.

As these two examples show, using a new tool requires more than knowing how to make it function properly. One must know how to employ the available functions in the service of some specific end, in these cases communicating.

There is another issue with new software, again a problem that requires the potential user to learn to use the tools well. This is the problem of matching capability to intent. There is a huge difference between a listserv and a web site, for instance, though both can pass information from one person who collects it to many who want it, and both may start with the same information. A listserv sends out that information to all who have requested notifications while a web site permits a much wider audience (assuming no password protection) to access the same information when and if they wish. Using a listserv assumes that there is value in sending out information ("pushing" it) to those who have asked to receive information of a given genre; placing the same information on a web site assumes that those who want that information will come looking for it (to "pull" it from the site). There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches; so the choice of which to use is not simple. In archaeology today both approaches are used, and both are valued. By and large, the lists that are still active have rather narrow interests; the web sites are more diverse, ranging from the (archaeological) site-specific to the data-type specific to the nearly encyclopedic. (A hybrid approach is also possible, for instance using a listserv to send out announcements of web postings. So we "push" to a given audience an alert that new information is ready to be "pulled" from a web site. Blogs often do this.)

Once again, the issue is user understanding. If the user understands the needs to be met, choosing the right technology may not be easy, but it is at least a decision that can be approached rationally. Hence the title, of this piece, "Know Your Choices."

It is important, though, to know both the choices of software/technology and the choices of approach. That is, knowing what you want to accomplish and for whom (e.g., "push" vs. "pull") is as important as fully understanding the capabilities of the technology. It is not possible to find the best tool if you have not carefully defined the job.

It is also important to find and use the simplest tools if you want to start something that will go on for a long time. (For instance, I think an argument can be made that blogs are just web sites that can be constructed and updated more easily than web pages and therefore have more appeal for a person wanting to post information that changes regularly.)

There are some simple questions one might ask before trying to use a new technology for a specific job.

These lists are far from exhaustive, but they prompt some good questions -- questions we should all ask before using an old or a new technology for a new job. There are no simple answers, and none will be offered here. But there are good questions, and useful answers depend upon the quality of the questions. Always with new technology, though, some skepticism is useful.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

1. I tried Facebook® a few months ago to see what it was like. I did so specifically to contact an old high-school classmate, which I was able to do. After some months, however, I decided it was not for me. Too many people had too little of interest to say -- but needed to say it anyway. I checked it less and less frequently. So I resigned. I may sign up again, this time without much information to let people find me -- and only to be able to see the photographs my children post of their children. For that it seems just fine for me, better than fine, but that limited utility is very limited indeed, and it does not require all the rest of the falderal of Facebook -- at least for me. I feel that I have figured out what I want Facebook for and now know better how to use it to my advantage. Return to text.

An index by subject for all CSA Newsletter issues may be found at csanet.org/newsletter/nlxref.html; included there are listings for articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities.

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