Hang Ups

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Not for the first time, I have been disappointed to find myself excluded from the short list for the Booker Prize. Kind friends assure me that I'm the victim of the London literati's notorious closed shop. But I suspect that it has got more to do with the fact that I've never actually got round to writing a novel.

I mean to. I long to. I'm even prepared to suffer for my art: the endless round of literary luncheons, publishers' parties, Sunday nights being grilled by Melvyn Bragg and the inevitable loneliness of tax exile. I have the vaunting ambition. I've got great ideas for the jacket design. I have the finely-honed biographical note that will appear on the inside flap. So what is it that prevents me from putting the unputdownable novel I've got inside me down on to paper? Only one thing the Qwerty keyboard. Although I never do enough typing to run the risk of suffering repetitive strain injury, I nonetheless find it a total pain in the neck. The prospect of having to key in all those words fills me with horror.

If I were Gregory Arakelion of Herndon, Virginia I'd be able to face it with equanimity. At the Key Tronic World International Type-off in 1991 he set up a new world record for typing at a PC with an amazing speed of 158 words per minute. That means that if he really put his mind to it, in a week he could type out not only one Booker novel but the entire short list of five. Even if teachers reading this column ( which would have taken Mr Arakelion 3.7 minutes to type) might think there's more to writing than speed, their pupils especially younger ones - wouldn't agree. Their heads might be brimming with ideas but it can take them so long to find the letter they need that they not only forget which word they intended to write, but also lose the oomph to write anything at all. The PC might be a brilliant aide to editing, redrafting and desktop publishing, but what children and wannabe Booker winners desperately need is an alternative to the tedious two-finger clodhop along the keyboard.

What we'd appreciate is the electronic equivalent of Morris I Kligman. He's a New York court reporter who, according to the Guinness Book of Records, can take 350 words of shorthand in a minute. With him by my side, I could have finished this column in 110 seconds; in a classroom, he'd enable children to concentrate on what they want to say rather than be distracted by the chore of getting their words onto the screen.

There are packages on the market - All Voice Dragon Dictate and IBM's Voice Type, for instance - which can digitise speech and translate it into print. But the words have to be spoken slowly and carefully enunciated. No one yet has discovered what Bill Gates, the genius behind the mighty Microsoft, has described as "the Holy Grail of computing" - a system that is capable of "continuous voice recognition". Using such a program, all that "writers" would need to do is chat away merrily, leaving it to the computer to process their words into priceless prose.

But having to utter one's thoughts aloud can, of course, be an awful strain, especially for us artistic types. Fortunately, there will come a day when there won't even be a need to do that. American researchers are working on a chip that will be implanted in the top of the neck. It will be able to monitor electronic activity in the brain which will then be communicated by an infra-red transmitter to an external computer.

Once they've worked out which of the brain's 50 billion cells does what, it should be possible in theory, at least to operate a computer purely by thought. Writers wouldn't be called upon to do anything more strenuous than a bit of serious thinking. But I suppose there's always the chance that the implant might prove to be even more of a pain in the neck than the Qwerty keyboard.

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