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Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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HomeCulture WarThinking? That’s SO last-century!

Thinking? That’s SO last-century!

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SOME little time ago, I was producing a drama for charity, and one of my actors asked if his 14-year-old son could get involved in some way. I said I needed help selling programmes, and this was eagerly accepted.

He was a super young man, and got stationed appropriately, taking cash for programmes at £3 each. He had no problem knowing that there was £2 change from a fiver, £7 from a tenner, and £17 from a £20 note. Only subsequently did I realise that he’d actually written it down. What he didn’t write down, however, and what he was unable to cope with, was when someone asked for two programmes. He couldn’t work out in his head that two times three is six and therefore ten minus six is four. He was a very intelligent boy and readers may be confused about how this could possibly be. But the truth is that if it isn’t in your programming, if you’ve never been taught mental arithmetic, i.e. the creation of mathematical pictures in your head, there is no way you can perform such a task. Laurie Lee called it ‘hammering in the golden nails’. No problem, of course, you can use a calculator instead!

Before covid, I had decades of experience running a workshop for business people on how to ensure any commercial document gets read and successfully acted upon. After effectively a four-year break, clients started coming back. Many use the workshop to train newly joined graduates. The four-year hiatus produced a ‘new generation’ of graduates, and I quickly realised how profoundly different they were. My first slide is a still from the Fredric March film Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, showing the man and his monstrous alter ego side by side. It’s a metaphor to illustrate the fundamental difference between the reader and the writer in each of us. In six workshops of around a dozen delegates each, not one could guess what the still was. Not one had heard of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Not one had heard of Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m not entirely sure any understood what a metaphor was. But it gets worse.

There’s a mechanical side to analysing a commercial document before making creative improvements. I stress the importance of shortening sentences that are too long, not to patronise one’s audience, but because commercial readers can’t be bothered to read ‘essays’. So, it involves delegates counting the number of words in a sentence, and if it exceeds a number I give to them, finding a way to shorten the sentence via punctuation, elimination or bulleting. Simple stuff? Always was. But I watched delegates just staring at the documents. Many didn’t engage with them in any way. My slides had already demonstrated the technique. So, what was the problem? Well, it became obvious that they simply didn’t know where to add extra punctuation to a sentence. Nor where to identify ‘redundant’ words for elimination. Yet these were documents they themselves had written. But this wasn’t all. You might think it’s easy to count a sentence consisting of 53 words, but only if you can count! Many appeared to be struggling with this task. But no problem, of course, you can use Word to do it for you!

My baptism wasn’t yet complete, however. Prior to the workshop day, I request some sample documents from delegates that they have written, so I can a) see the quality of their work, and b) select from them certain pages we can work on as workshop exercises. On average, each delegate submits three documents, with each document averaging five pages. So, for a workshop of 12 delegates, I am sent around 180-200 pages. Given what I’ve already told you, you might expect those pages to have more than a few typos and grammatical bloopers. There wasn’t a single one. True, many of the sentences were too long, benefits and offers were too hidden in essay-style text (which my workshop uncovers and transforms), but spelling and grammar couldn’t be faulted. I can tell you from experience that 200-odd A4 pages like that is virtually impossible. And then the final penny dropped, when I also noticed the consistency in style and approach across them all. They hadn’t written any of them. They’d been written by AI. Thinking no longer required.

If you want to weep, compare this with a Japanese experiment earlier this century, when they replaced calculators with the soroban, the abacus, at school. Kids cottoned on quickly, and could soon calculate on the abacus faster than using the keys on a calculator. For the advanced course, they removed the physical abacus. They were no longer needed. The kids could see and operate them in their heads.

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John Drewry
John Drewry
John Drewry has a background in marketing, owning and chairing an advertising agency for many years. He also holds an Equity card as a stage director and actor, and is Patron & Presenter for the Nursing Memorial Appeal.

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