In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin gives a few details of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s decidedly low-tech life. Souter has no cell phone or voice mail. He does not use email. He was given a television once but never turned it on. He moves his chair around his office throughout the day so he can read by natural light. Toobin says Souter lives something like an eighteenth century gentleman.
I find it interesting that Justice Souter would have such independence of mind that he chooses not to use much of the technology that our world takes for granted. He made it to the top of his profession and had a job for life, so he could afford to be eccentric. But he wasn’t born on the Supreme Court. I would like to know whether his low-tech work habits developed before or after his legal success.
I imagine most readers of this blog could more easily relate to Donald Knuth than David Souter. Knuth obviously doesn’t reject technology, but he is selective in how he uses it.
I had the opportunity to see Knuth speak while I was in college. Much to my surprise, his slides were handwritten. The author of TeX didn’t see the need to use TeX for his slides. While he cares about the fine details of how math looks in print, he apparently didn’t feel it was worth the effort to typeset his notes for an informal presentation.
In 1990 Knuth decided to stop using email.
I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.
I believe I’ve read that Knuth does most of his work on a Linux box with no network connection. He also has a Mac for creating graphics and using the Internet. He has a secretary to handle his correspondence, including email.
If you’re reading legal briefs by sunlight, your thoughts will not be exactly the same as they would be if you were reading by fluorescent light. If you’re writing a presentation by hand, you’re not going to think the same way you would if you were pecking on a computer keyboard. And if you do use a computer, your thinking is subtlety different depending on what program you use. Technology affects the way you think. The effect is not uniformly better or worse, but it is certainly real.