Taking a low-tech trip by train

As new technology abounds, the key to sanity
and finding the best to suit your needs is to sit
back, relax and . . . pause


It's spring! Time to put aside my series of curmudgeonly columns nagging you about your duty of electronic confidentiality to clients. Let's take a break and go on a little trip.

In fact, let's take a very low-tech trip . . . on a train. Imagine that we're traveling at more than a hundred miles per hour in a newly fitted-out sleeper compartment, through the great plains of Nebraska.

All we can hear are the muffled sounds of the wheels, the whoosh of trees and clop-clop of the telephone poles whizzing by our large cabin window.

One of us, however, is a telephone pole technology lover, while the other is just a professional traveler. Our dialogue might sound something like this.

Too many poles

Techie: "Wow, look at those telephone poles, they've got the newest cabling on them . . . looks like they're hung with fiber . . . no, wait, there goes a satellite relay dish . . . they must be boosting their signal to a synchronous station . . . but look at that . . ."

Traveler: "Huh? Fiber? Satellite? Wait! Look at those mountains, look at the spring snow, look at those huge clouds . . . just like a Walt Disney movie . . . isn't it absolutely beautiful?"

"Yeah, beautiful is right. I'll bet they're carrying whole bunches of ISDN signals down those lines," says Techie.

To make this exciting travel allegory short, let's cut to the chase: law office technology reviewers love technology; for them, there are never too many telephone poles.

They love gadgets that not only work, they love those that don't work just as well and they love things that have absolutely no use whatsoever in a real life law firm.

Just as long as these gadgets meet three criteria: they're new, they're technically complex, and they may work -- some day.

Now they've got something to talk about. For them, new law office products are the telephone poles of life. New products whiz by, each a challenge of description, technological wizardry and promise.

Unfortunately for the rest of us who practice law, these observers of telephone poles never do seem to see the snow on the hills.

Only a dream

Here's my favorite current example: voice recognition technology.

If lawyers ever had a dream, it's voice recognition. "Dictate a brilliant brief, then print a clean, cite-checked copy please, and quickly," goes the usual dream monologue.

The immense potential mixed with our genetic dislike for keyboards makes us want to have this technology work. Too bad it doesn't -- not yet, at least. But you wouldn't know that from the paeans sung by the current crop of law office product reviewers!

You can import a document into an average computer and have the document read back to you if you don't mind the speaker sounding like Mickey Mouse or R2D2.

But speech recognition is a more vexing problem. The goal in this technological quest is what is called "continuous speech." That is, the ability of the software and the hardware to recognize an uninterrupted sentence whether or not you have a croissant in your mouth or a cold in your throat; to catch every nuance of your sentence, parse homonyms, and learn new words in a flash.

Today, if you're willing to spend about $1,000 for additional hardware and software for your computer, and are patient enough to pause . . . for

. . . one . . . second . . . between . . . each . . . word . . . then you've arrived.

That's not the only problem. Another is the quality of the recognition itself.

I recently spoke to a chap demonstrating voice dictation at a trade show for a major legal publisher. "How long did it take to train your system to recognize your voice?" I asked. "Four years so far," he replied, as the system crashed.

Enjoy the scenery

So, while there are a gazillion technology telephone poles whizzing by, each one tempting, each one promoted by yet another breathless product reviewer, I urge you to consider the alternative: sit back, relax, open the thermos, have a hot cup of tea and enjoy the scenery.

You can look at the poles when we get to Chicago.

Martin Dean is president of newly renamed Essential Publishers. His e-mail address is mdean@crl.com.