Expressiveness for Engineers
IEEE Spectrum Magazine, September 2004

I keep hearing an ad on the local radio station touting a course that will give you a “million dollar vocabulary.” According to the ad, after only a few hours of studying their material you will be using big, powerful words that will impress people with your intelligence.

The thought occurs to me that we could fix this shortcoming in written communication. Your word processor could come up with a helpful popup. “I see you’re using small words, like ‘pay’,” it would say. “Perhaps you’d like to substitute the word ‘remuneration’.”

This got me to thinking once again about how computers have changed the way we communicate in writing and in presentations. A few readers will remember the dark ages when we had to send memos to the typing pool and viewgraphs to the art department. How constraining that was! Words and drawings were frozen in the virtual concrete of expensive ink-drawn lines and multiple carbon copies. Just the thought of it today gives me an involuntary shiver.

Personal computers and word processors enabled us to do our own publishing, but the widespread availability of LCD projectors changed things again. Now memos and presentations are infinitely malleable, existing only for the fleeting instant of an actual observation, like the collapse of a wave function in quantum mechanics when a measurement is performed. Prior to the observation, the presentation exists only in an indeterminate state -- like the Shroedinger cat, neither alive nor dead – subject to instant changes depending on sudden whims or something said by a previous speaker.

So now we have this wonderful, expansive freedom to express ourselves – a freedom limited by only two things. The first is our knowledge of Word and Powerpoint (of course, there are other programs too!). Since this is the lingua franca of engineering communication, it would seem that the ability to express yourself would be a function of your knowledge of the features of these programs. Maybe this is what the “million dollar vocabulary” people should be touting.

However, in my experience engineers never take courses in word processing. In fact, we never even read the manuals. Furthermore, I often find that even the “help” functions in these programs turn out to be useless. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do something in Powerpoint (usually some variation of a chart or table) and after five or ten minutes give up and just don’t include that material. I debate with myself – is it worth trying to learn this feature or not? “Not” usually wins. So I confess: sometimes I am Powerpoint-challenged.

Even as I confess this shortcoming, I am defensive. Maybe not knowing all the features is a good thing. I said earlier that two things limited our expressiveness. The first was our knowledge of features, but the second is the acceptability criteria that have been established through common practice. I find this most curious. On the one hand, computers have given us this vast freedom of expression, but at the same time they have established a pattern of conformance that has narrowed the range of expression to a tiny sliver. Said more succinctly: all Powerpoint presentations look the same.

Well, let me rephrase that last statement: all good Powerpoint presentations look alike. On the one end of the spectrum there are the poor presentations by Powerpoint-illiterates, while at the other end there are the presentations by Powerpoint-show-offs, who are more interested in demonstrating their graphics than in getting their points across. Somewhere in the middle is the golden mean of about five bullets or one picture per slide. I get really edgy when speakers clutter up their slides with all sorts of seemingly-irrelevant material.

So are the writers of these word processing programs going to take this bad usage lying down? Of course not. Future programs will take care of all this. First there was bad spelling. Now that’s off the table. Then they took on grammar. In my opinion this hasn’t been perfected yet, but it will be. Then they’ll start to look at our math, providing corrections and helpful suggestions. Maybe the paperclip helper will pop up and suggest that it could provide a proof for a certain equation if you’d like.

There’s no stopping this evolution. Today you have your choice of fonts, such as Times New Roman or Bookman Old Style. But in the future you could have your choice of writing styles. The paperclip would ask whether you would prefer this in the style of Hemingway, or perhaps in the old English style of Dickens.

Powerpoint would begin to criticize our usage. “This slide is confusing,” the paperclip would say. “Might I try redoing this for you to provide clarity?”

In the final stages, before the user revolution occurs, word processing programs would begin to criticize our ideas. “Let me give a counterargument,” the paperclip would begin.

Suggesting big, powerful words is only the beginning. The camel’s head is poking into the tent. As computers empower our expressiveness, they also plot to take it away.

Robert Lucky