Tuesday, September 15, 2009

15: let's get physical: white-out vs. the delete key

(Written for a Comm 2450 blog assignment)

Over the past two years, my pencil usage has dropped significantly... These days, the only writing instruments I ever use are black or blue pens. However, seeing as I am a complete neat freak when it comes to taking notes, my exclusive use of ink leaves me in a bit of a mess, making my BIC Wite-Out correction tape an absolute necessity for me.

For starters, it is physically constrained by the amount of correction tape in the dispenser, 33.3 ft. The correction tape spool cannot rip, either, or else the entire object will no longer function. The actual shape also molds its use. To operate it, the tip has to be held at an angle, with constant pressure applied to it, and on flat paper, as it doesn’t really adhere to plastic or anything particularly textured. Furthermore, once you white-out something, there’s no way to “undo” it, so you have to be sure you want to get rid of the text in the first place.

Defunct BIC Wite-Out tape

Cultural constraints: Our current generation knows the use of correction tape because it's been around for so long -- since the age of typewriters and fax machines. We understand that it’s not meant to be used as actual "tape" to hold things together, nor for entertainment purposes (see video below). It exists to cover up errors made with ink -- mistakes that are otherwise un-erasable. Additionally, culture advises us to use correction tape on white paper, so that it doesn't stand out on the page. Similarly, you also don’t want to use your Wite-Out TOO much because then your paper will look messy and un-presentable.

Wite-Out tape on a fan...?

For those of us who rely primarily on virtual measures for taking notes and writing papers, the "delete" key on keyboards is an alternative method for correcting content.

It is physically constrained by the actual, tangible object itself: The delete button must be pressed down on -- it certainly doesn't afford much else.

From a virtual perspective, however, its use requires that you have a text box open. Otherwise, it won't function like you want (e.g., if you have an Internet window open, and you’re not typing in a text box, but you press the delete key, the Internet window will return to the previous page you were viewing, rather than remove text). Also, the text document cannot be "read-only" -- you need to be able to actually edit it.

Cultural constraints of the delete key include the “delete” label on the key, which explicitly indicates its function -- we understand this meaning through our knowledge of language. From our observations and understandings of culture, we also know that holding down on it allows for a continuous stream of deletion, whereas repeatedly pressing down on it deletes characters individually. We also know not to pound on the delete key over and over, because it makes a racket, and people will stare or find it disruptive (remember the scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks doesn’t know how to respond to Meg Ryan’s email? He keeps coming up with different things to say, but ends up deleting his emails letter by letter, in annoyance).

Physical constraints as applied to virtual objects are tricky since the actual constraints are themselves only virtual and not self-evident. However, in the virtual world, you have outs that aren’t necessarily present in the physical world. For instance, when you accidentally delete something, you often have the ability to “undo” your action and recover your text, whereas if you accidentally Wite-Out something, you might forget what it is you just corrected, and lose that information forever.

Also, unlike Wite-Out, the delete key allows you to make as many mistakes as you want. The final, clean copy will not expose any of your deletions/mistakes. This influences the way we use each object, because if you’re writing a paper by hand, you’ll probably take more time and care into composing your thoughts, to keep from making mistakes while writing. When typing, though, you’ll probably work more quickly and less watchfully, because you’re under the assumption that you’ll be able to easily alter the text later.

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