Myodicy, Issue 27, November 2006

I Told You So:
Ten Years of Myodicy

by Theodore Plantinga

I do believe I deserve a pat on the back. It's been ten years since I started Myodicy, and the enterprise is still going strong. But as a Calvinist I know all too well that I need to restrain myself. "Let another praise you -- and not your own mouth," we read in Scripture (see Proverbs 27:2).

On occasions like this, words of reconsideration are more fruitful than words praise. Readers might wonder whether I still stand behind my manifesto of ten years ago. Now, Myodicy did not begin with a manifesto in the strict sense of the term. But there was indeed an essay in the very first issue of August 1996 in which I reflected on the changes in our cuture wrought by computers when used as a tool for scholarly work in the humanities. That essay was entitled "Birkerts and the Decline of Reading," and it dealt with words of warning about television, computers and so forth that had been uttered by Sven Birkerts, a man about the literary scene. Now, I did lend credence to some of the concerns voiced by Birkerts, for I declared: "In presenting myself as an enthusiast for on-screen reading (which is to be distinguished from on-line reading), I do not intend to dismiss all of Birkerts' concerns as unfounded."

Although ten years have passed, I would say that what Birkerts and others of similar persuasion have written about these matters is still worth pondering. Yet my Birkerts essay of 1996 was for the most part an assurance to readers and computer users that the brave new world on which we were embarking is not quite so frightful as often depicted. Such was my conviction back in 1996, when I launched Myodicy.

The 1996 essay was also an occasion for confession on my part. I wrote: "A friend of mine told me recently that he knows no one who likes reading on a computer screen or who would choose the screen version of a document over a hard copy on paper. I immediately informed him that he was looking at an exception to his rule." I believe I can say that in the ten years that have passed since then, my tribe has increased (I trust that Coleridge's Abou Ben Adhem can say the same by now).

At Redeemer University College, where I teach philosophy, I distribute a great many documents in electronic form, often as PDF files. Some of the recipients print them immediately, but many heed my plea to spare the trees and simply read them on-screen. I sometimes suggest that they can make the text larger if they need to. Among the younger set, in particular (the people who were just kids back in August of 1996), I find an easy acceptance of the use of the computer as a reading device.

In principle, the virtues of reading on-screen have nothing to do with the internet, of course, and so the technological issues underlying the launch of Myodicy as a way to communicate Christian ideas flow in two separate streams (i.e. on-screen reading as opposed to internet dissemination). Back in 1996 I still heard discussion as to whether the internet might turn out to be a passing fad. I hear much less talk of that sort today. Although the search engines back then were not nearly what they are today, it was clear to me that the combination of almost instant access to documents along with a level of dynamic indexing that is nowhere near possible in print documents would prove irresistible in the long run. I was -- and remain -- an internet enthusiast.

There were skeptics back then -- there probably still are. And so I was cautious when I launched my first issue. I wrote:

It has occurred to me that my enthusiasm for reading on screen has something to do with the element of novelty. Although I have been a fairly heavy computer user for almost ten years, I am still not beyond the wonder of it all -- the power and speed of the technology available to the plain folk like myself. And so I sometimes speculate that I may feel and think differently about this matter when another ten years have passed. I cannot be sure that I will not. (Remember all those times when someone said to you, "I used to think that as well, but in time you will come to realize ...."?) I suspect that my enjoyment and appreciation will grow as new technologies prove even more serviceable than the technology I now use. But there is no way to prove that this will indeed be the case.

Well, those ten years have passed, and I can report that my hunch of 1996 was correct. I am still enthusiastic about on-screen reading, and I expect to grow even more so as still more years slip by. You see, I get a year older every year (maybe you do too), and the toll taken by age shows up in my eyes. As a result of the aging process, I find myself squinting at poorly typeset material (perhaps not enough space between the lines). I ask myself as I am squinting: is there some professional reason why it is important for me to read this stuff? If the answer is yes, I plow through it, even if I don't enjoy it and have trouble seeing it clearly. But if the answer is no, it is set aside, never to be picked up again.

In the case of on-screen reading material, of course, I am the sovereign postmodernist reader able to take liberties with the text to the point of making it more readable by enlarging the print, changing the typeface, and redoing even the paragraph layout. I add a bit of space between lines if needed. Just for the record, my standard paragraph formatting for material I convert for reading and research or perhaps for editing is first line left-justified, and every other line in the paragraph indented slightly. I make sure that the paragraph-end mark is showing. For text that I read on screen I generally use Bookman Old Style, 15 point. How big such text actually appears on my screen depends, of course, on what degree of magification I ask for in my word processor. (Magnification affects the appearance of the text on screen without making changes in the file being displayed.) I use a yellow background as my default setting, and the type is black. Back in the 1990s I cycled between a variety of color schemes on a regular basis, but I eventually settled on just one. When I compose, I often use Vrinda, 24 point (it's not as big as it sounds), for its clarity, its extra space between lines, and its generous space between words. But much of what I write nowadays is dictated, using Dragon Naturally Speaking (I started with IBM's Via Voice, but switched to Dragon after a couple of years).

Because HTML files are composed of ASCII text, I have taken to storing my information more and more in straight ASCII form, using minimal HTML code to indicate italics and paragraph endings. If I wish to share a file, or some of the information in a file, I can make use of OpenOffice to interpret the HTML coding in the text (which is inserted mainly via simple macros) in the process of generating text with the appearance we associate with word processing documents. Open Office then generates a PDF file which I am able to pass on to others or post on the internet.

But I would not wish to be perceived simply as one who beats the drum for "progress" and salutes each new product and update. My Birkerts essay of 1996 mentioned the fact that the word processor I was then using on a daily basis was Microsoft Word for Windows, Version 6. Today I use MS Word, Version 2 (which is not four versions earlier but only one). People are sometime surprised to hear that I use an "ancient" word processor. "Why in the world?" they ask me. The answer is simple: because it's the best -- as far as I can tell. I maintain that Windows (in the PC world) is clearly a big step beyond the pre-Windows world of DOS-based word processors. And of the various Windows word-processors made for the PC, Word 2 is the fastest and most flexible -- especially when it comes to macro usage, and I use macros by the hundreds (my brain is considerably more nimble than the fingers I use for typing). And so, whereas I had switched in 1996 to Word 6, thinking it to be an improvement on Word 2, I later went back to Word 2 and have been there ever since. It still runs well in a Windows XP environment. [END]

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.