It is almost a truism that we have become too reliant on technology. You only have to step into a place where the computer system has 'gone down' to see that. Like the restaurant I wandered into a few days ago in which there was, to quote one of the staff, 'anarchy' because the computerised booking set-up had, as it were, downed tools.
But in a funny kind of way that sort of situation is copable with if you're reasonably intelligent, have a contingency plan and possess a spark of creativity. The thing is, a system which is off is, by definition, not on. Like the binary system on which it's based, the computer system's state leaves no room for doubt, no room for ambiguity. at the risk of sounding a little Monty Pythonish, it's off, not working, finished, kaput – at least for the time being.
What is far worse, in my opinion, is when something goes wrong but in such a quiet sort of way that you don't even notice at first. Thus it was that when my spell-checker stopped checking my spelling, it did so without warning, without fanfare and, crucially, without any wavy red lines. Unfortunately, the first glimmer I had of something being amiss was when I read an article I'd just posted that mentioned my being resposible.
Now there are a couple of things that come to mind about this. Firstly, it's very apparent what a shoddy job of proofreading I did. That was partly because I had implicitly assumed that the spell checker would pick up any neologism I'd 'penned'. But it was also partly because, like most people, I subconsciously substituted the correct word for the incorrect one when I was reading through my article.
That is why anyone writing for an audience on a professional basis has their work proofread by someone else. Is that done as a matter of course in schools? We harp on about writing or presenting for different audiences (in England and Wales it is stipulated in the National Curriculum). But the logical corollary of that position is having students proofread each other's work and, in special projects, splitting the task between writers and editors and proofreaders.
The second thing that strikes me, somewhat more whimsically, is that not having a spell checker is a good way of coining new words. For example, as far as I am aware the word 'resposible' does not exist (I've even looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary), yet it sounds like it ought to. Could it be, perhaps, the property of being eligible to be taken back having been disposed of?
Inventing words accidentally, and then creating meanings for them, is quite entertaining. It goes to show that life without a spell checker, whilst not ideal, is not an entirely desperate state of affairs.
This is a slightly modified version of an article first published on 20th May 2009.