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A floppy lexicon

By Doug Mullis / June 11, 1986



YES, the computer has brought about a revolution in our offices. Am I talking about the ability to make super calculations in the twinkling of an eye? Reports done up neatly in jiffy time? No, it's office lingo I'm onto.

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More than lingo -- we're talking a whole new order of communication here. For example, my secretary used to bring me a ``letter'' which I had drafted and she had ``typed.'' Now I get a ``hard copy'' of my ``document.''

Let's stop right there a moment. A ``document''? I thought it was just a thank-you letter to an associate in another state. A note, really: ``Dear Bill: Thanks so much for getting that information to me the other day. It's going to be a big help in the study we're working up for next month. With appreciation, Doug.''

Now it's flattering to think that my prosaic efforts to communicate are honored with the grand title, ``documents,'' but I feel a certain burden of responsibility coming on. Documents are not to be taken lightly. Perhaps my prose needs to become more -- more -- dignified? Resounding with big issues?

But that's only the beginning. Just as I was adjusting to writing documents, I learned that these documents need to be ``archived.'' According to my professional upbringing, having your work in an archive is to be in the organizational big leagues. One envisions vaulted rooms filled with musty old papers of great historical importance.

Sorry, not so. These archives are ``floppy disks,'' where papers become electronic impulses -- mere will-o'-the-wisps of magnetic impressions. How deflating to be plunged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the solid and grand to the transitory and plastic.

This brings us back to hard copies. I am assured that my documents can be ``retrieved'' from their limbo archival existence to the objective world of a hard copy. ``Hard copy'' has an appropriately businesslike, solid-accomplishment feel to it.

Is a hard copy to the office as hard news is to a newsroom? I like to think so, and I get a certain satisfaction out of signing a hard copy that I never got out of signing a mere letter. Still, there are doubts and uncertainties here. Take that thank-you letter to Bill. A thank-you hard copy sounds, well, cold.

Our office computer has aided and abetted that relentless drive to turn nouns into verbs. I've already alluded to the new verb, ``to archive.'' We don't type letters (pardon, documents) anymore, we ``keyboard'' them. Except that our office's computer is the Wang brand, so in the new vernacular we ``wang'' our documents.

In the old office lore, employees hung around the water cooler. Now they wait at the printer. The printer, that incomprehensively complex auto-typewriter that produces the aforesaid hard copies, has become the focal point of the office -- even replacing that old friend, the copy machine. It's amazing how quickly the new technology has deposed the old.

Our copy machine was removed from a symbolically prominent position near the front of the office, where it had its own little room (the copy machine room), to the far back of the office near the water fountain and the little refrigerator where we keep our lunches and sodas. Oh, it still gets plenty of business, but the glamour is gone.

Just last week I noticed someone had dropped a little piece of bologna and a spot of mustard on it. How ignoble. Ah, but the printer. It is given constant, tender attention.

We woo it with fresh daisies. Daisy wheels, that is -- with which it produces those letter-perfect hard copies. We feed it ribbons, for which it has a voracious appetite. Is the printer feeling a little out of line? Quick, call the repairman -- is there anything we can do in the meantime?

Were the print shops of old rallying points for calls to freedom, justice, and reform? Our latter-day printer is hardly that -- more like a train station or airport where we wait for arrivals. Expectant secretaries and assistants stand staring at this machine. Cries like, ``Beverly, your document is still coming out! How long is it, anyway?'' can be heard.

The printer has a keen sense of social order. Usually egalitarian, accepting commands from the various terminals to print documents on a first come, first served basis, it snaps to when a VIP has a VID (very important you-know-what) to print.

Responding to a special command, it dramatically refuses to continue printing any of the more plebeian documents. Special electronic circuits leapfrog the VID over all others.

The favored secretary steps crisply to the head of the line, plucks the document from the machine, and with benign grace announces that the regular printing may now resume. In truly historic circumstances, even supervisors can be seen hovering over the printer waiting for a V,VID.

Serious stuff is involved in the use of the computer, and alas, territorial disputes can break out. These of course have their own lexicon. Frequent skir-mishes are fought over who gets to occupy the workstations. What's a work-station? That's a wooden artifact that we used to call a desk. A desk becomes a workstation when a terminal is placed on it.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not complaining about the incursion of modern word-processing equipment. As someone who is one step removed from the actual hands-on experience, the thing I notice is the quiet. Equipment has its language as well as workers, and I have grown accustomed to the demure click-clicks emanating from the work-stations.

When my secretary was driven by some unimaginable exigency to dust off and use her electric typewriter the other day, I was both startled and irritated by its penetrating CLACK CLACK ZZUH-DING! No, I welcome the new equipment. It's just that somehow I harbor a suspicion of the new language.

Maybe I'm hopelessly ordinary -- not cut out to draft documents. Maybe some part of me just wants to write plain old letters.