Digital Self: Apps and the Man

Updated: Oct 11

In 1984, we moved to the new campus of the Plasma Physics Programme established by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, which became the Institute for Plasma Research in 1986. One of the policy decisions was not to have too many clerical and secretarial staff. Personal computers were beginning to be popular in India. We began to progressively convert ourselves to make the documentation side of our work more PC dependent. I was ambivalent about embracing computers in the beginning. I realized that this had to do with my realization that I was not skilled in programming as were many of my colleagues. However, I soon overcame this reservation and realized that the routine use of PCs for soft documentation had its plus side. I could write and edit confidential documents and scientific papers without being tied to the whims of a clerical person. In a short time, word processing transformed itself from the cumbersome Word Star to the MS Word application with the Windows suite. The agile transformation of MS Word into a word processor and editor/grammar/style checker is symbolic of the frenetic growth of digital technology. Unlike the expensive MS suite of Word, Excel etc., there are now free alternatives like LibreOffice with even better features. A similar transformation in the ease of use happened in the case of email also. There was a time when the rituals associated with sending an email were so tedious and complex compared to the present when you could dictate your Gmail and send it off. What made the digital transformation possible? It was a process of scaling down the size of electronic components like transistors. The size reduction follows a prediction made in April 1965 by Gordon Moore, the founder of INTEL. He said that every 18 months, the number of transistors squeezed onto a tiny computer chip doubles, thus doubling its processing power, increasing performance and reducing cost. Because of the exponential nature of Moore’s law, each change arrives faster and faster. It is often said that the present generation smartphones are more powerful than the NASA computer used in the man in the moon mission. Their computational speed is higher than that of the Cray-2 Supercomputers made in the mid-1980s. The latest iPhone’s processor is estimated to run at about Two Billion times per second compared to the Apollo 11 computer that performed 430,000 operations per second. The rampant growth of smart-class technologies has converted the classroom into a ‘connected’ entity, thereby enriching the learning experience for developing countries with relatively poor facilities like libraries or museums for cultural enhancement. In addition, the smart class and the internet have empowered students through videos on their favourite subjects and speakers and enabled them to take virtual tours of places of interest. When combined with the versatility of the digital experience, personalized teaching with its human contact element may create a powerful new model of education. A couple of years ago, I decided to set up a website related to my professional life, books, poetry and paintings. Searching for a medium to host the website, I came across Wix. Its interface is intuitive, with great functionality among the ever-growing group of website-building services. A gallery of third-party site widgets and robust blogging features abound. There are hundreds of template choices with the usual options for text, media, social media widgets, buttons, shapes, and so on. You can set up a separate Google Analytics account for monitoring traffic. Web-Stats tells you where visits came from and what display, computer, and browsers visitors used, and keeps you informed about how people have responded to your site. In Wix, you can add photos, galleries, videos, all formatted to taste. Adding a blog to your site is easy. An application I have found extremely useful is Evernote. You can capture, organise and store almost any type of digital information with your phone, web browser or laptop. Evernote works with both Android and iOS for mobiles. There is a desktop app for Windows and Macs. You can also access it through a web browser. When you open a web page with interesting information, you can save the page to Evernote. For example, I subscribe to numerous blogs. When I get the free content, I store them in Evernote. The webapp TED, allows you to watch thousands of scintillating talks and ideas from people with brilliant minds. TED talks are intellectually stimulating and enable you to push boundaries of thought and imagination. TED is beneficial for both students and teachers. A writer using MS Word needs to make too many decisions before starting writing. Which font do you want to use? What is the best line spacing? These questions distract you from putting words together. iA Writer eliminates nearly all the distractions in word processing apps and helps you focus on the text. For short-form writers searching for minimalism, iA Writer may be the best writing app available. One can format a draft text by exporting it to MS Word. IA Writer also makes your work lighter by allowing you to dictate the text. I use an app called Grammarly regularly to proofread my professional and blog writing. In spite of having a good grasp of the rules of English grammars, spelling and grammatical errors may usually creep into the writing. The free version covers the basics (grammar, punctuation, and spelling). The paid version offers editorial suggestions of a stylistic kind. It can be the difference between sloppy and muddled writing and lucid and professional writing which can make compelling reading. In addition, it gives you help with overall readability and other insights on improving your writing. I bring out a monthly newsletter, Elders’ Voice for the Senior Citizens’ Forum, Kottayam, a fellowship of senior citizens from all walks of life. Rather than depend on professional layout technicians and printers, we decided to do it ourselves and take out a final Xerox copy. I found Affinity Publisher, which is a desktop app. Affinity Publisher is the equivalent of Adobe InDesign. The best thing about Publisher is that you will be able to carry out anything you are used to doing in InDesign. It was the official Mac App of the Year for 2019. Affinity Publisher provides a wide range of tools such as graphics for working with multipage text. A blog by Shekhar Bhatia, former editor of Hindustan Times in Live Mint, mentioned, a virtual library where one can list and organize books. This online database allows you to create and manage an inventory of all your books. All you need to do is enter the book’s unique ISBN, and it becomes part of your online library with a photo of the book cover, pre-assigned categories, Publisher, publication date etc. A subscription allows me to catalogue all the books in my collection. I can sit at my Mac, look up the virtual library, call up a book, read the plot, be reminded of the characters, and even make the book nibble at my memory to recall where and when I had purchased it. Technology allows us to focus more on the end goal, less diverted by concerns about the path to reach there. A Pew survey reveals that close to 46 per cent of working adults feel their productivity has increased due to the internet. I keep telling my senior-citizen friends of the sense of empowerment that one gets after mastering digital technologies. I also realize that our brains are wired for this when I see my twelve year old grandchild wander with ease in Minecraft.

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