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The pen is mightier than MS Word

August 2009


I’ve just had one of those moments that forces one to take stock of a few things.

I was working on a complex bit of research.  I had three websites and a spread sheet open in front of me and,  centre screen, a just-started piece of writing.  I was looking for a bit of earlier work in my computer’s memory, when there was a quiet click and the screen went dark.  Not just that, but the music I was listening to fell silent, and the computer stopped whirring.

It was a power cut.  It should not have been too terrible; it was a summer afternoon, there was plenty of light and I was not stuck in a lift.  But the brutal truth was that I felt, at that moment, marooned.  Cast adrift.  If Ben Gunn had appeared at that point, I would have told him that we could compare notes and find we were twin souls.

For ages I have been saying how wonderful computers are; more, I have often said we have only ourselves to blame if we are filling our homes with paper when the data can all be stored online.  It’s the way forward, I have droned, and we either accept it or consign ourselves to a ghetto of those who refuse to recognise a good thing when they see it.

Now, suddenly, reality had been thrust under my nose; the wind that filled my electronic sails had died, and I was becalmed.  I sat silent for a few moments, stunned, and then rang up my farmer neighbour to see if he was similarly bereft.  To my dismay, he had to check by turning on a light.  He had been sitting having a quiet cup of tea in his kitchen whilst reading the paper.  He was using no electricity at all.

The difference between us could not have been starker.  There he was: happy, relaxed, and unaffected; there I was: tense, irritated and at a loss to know what to do next.  Most of us have become so stuck on technology that when someone says he is going to do some work, we assume that he will first switch on a computer. 

I resorted to the ways of the ancients.  I reached for a pen and began to draft my piece, but my hands kept drifting hopefully to the keyboard to check a fact, a spelling or a press clipping.  I was like a smoker searching an empty cigarette packet once again in case he has missed one.

After a little while, I remembered my neglected bookshelf and pulled out Whittaker to check a fact, and then Brewer to find the correct use of a phrase.  Neither let me down.  Warming to this, I referred in quick succession to a dictionary of quotations and then an encyclopaedia.  All gave me what I needed in moments, and unlike the internet, I knew that I could trust the source in each case as impeccable.  I was relaxing.

Oddest of all was that I found I could even call to mind the previous research I had done but had stored on my lifeless computer – but only because I couldn’t look it up on the hard drive.

Then, blow me down, the work was done.  Preening slightly, I wandered into the kitchen to make some tea.  That was when the full horror of my situation really hit home: no electricity, no tea.  There was only one thing to do.  I opened a can of beer (it was past six o’clock) and went and sat in the garden.

When the electricity came back on, and I reverted, cravenly, to my computer-dependent self.  Nevertheless, I felt like some sort of modest demon had been challenged and bested.  Say what you like, the computer has a long way to go before it replaces books, paper and pens.  Thank goodness.