The written word in a digital age
By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-09-19 09:36

Photography has been my hobby since childhood. I can still remember the Kodak box my father bought me when I was about eight years of age. It was nothing but a black box with a fixed aperture lens: you take pictures when there is sunlight and go home when the sun sets. Crude though it might have been, the little camera was my most precious possession for many years.

When I was in high school, I converted a shed in the backyard into a dark room and learned the skill of developing films and making prints. I have lost count of how many cameras and lenses I have bought and used over the years.

I always thought I knew a thing or two about photography, until now.

When digital cameras first came onto the market a decade or so ago, I rushed out to buy one out of curiosity. It was a dog. The pictures I took with it were so bad that I was embarrassed to look at them even in the privacy of my room.

A few weeks ago, a friend gave me his used digital camera after he upgraded to a newer model. The one he gave me was less than 18 months old. I took some random pictures and opened them on my computer. Wow, what a revelation.

Even without touch-ups, the colour spectrum looks correct, the tone and contrast were unexpectedly film-like. And my friend told me that they should look even better after processing in Photoshop.

I have a copy of the popular photo-processing programme on my computer, although I've never quite gotten around to learning to use it. I went out and bought several voluminous books on the technique of digital processing. They have opened a whole new world for me. My previous knowledge of photography has been reduced to nothing.

Luckily for us, digitalization has not had nearly as much of an impact on the art of writing as it has on that of photography and nearly everything else. There is still no computer programme that can improve on our writing as Photoshop and other similar programmes can for our photos.

Writing is still a personal skill acquired through years of reading and practice. There is no "auto level" that can remove the hazy ambiguity in a badly written piece. Nor is there an "unsharp mask" that can sharpen the focus on a rambling discourse.

At some newspapers, reporters and editors are discouraged from using the spell-check function built into many word processing programmes. A spell checker is actually a rather dumb tool. It can't tell the right word from the wrong one, as long as the two are spelt correctly. Relying on it could cause a writer to become lazy in double-checking his or her article.

As someone who has to earn his living from writing and editing, I am glad that there is no computer programme that can juggle text as it can images. Maybe I am too old and lazy to start fresh as a computer expert. To me, writing on a computer or a typewriter makes very little difference. And that's the way it should be.

As for photography, I am more than happy to make the switch from film to digital.

It saves me a lot of money because less than 1 per cent of the pictures I have ever taken are worth keeping. With a digital camera, I can take as many pictures as I like and feel no remorse whatsoever in discarding those that fail to please. When I find a picture I can feel proud of, I can always take it to the output house for professional processing and printing.

Writing is a whole lot more personal to me. I want to be personally involved in the entire process.

(China Daily 09/19/2006 page4)