One of the newspapers I read had an article discussing the future workplace and what kinds of jobs will be lost to technology. The article pointed out that both white-collar and blue-collar jobs are subject to loss as technology advances and gave some examples.
One example it gave was the truck driver. As automated cars and driving are perfected, will there be a need for the truck driver? The article concluded no, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps there will be no need for a person to actually do the driving, but there will still be a need for someone to make sure that the items are delivered correctly. In other words, the role may change but the need for a real person may not.
The article got me thinking about editors. I know we’ve discussed the future of editing before (see, e.g., Is There a Future in Editing? and The Business of Editing: Will the Tide Turn for Us?), but not from the perspective of technological advances.
With each passing year, computer software gets smarter. Increasingly, the tasks that editors perform are being performed by software. Consider just spell-checking and grammar software. I remember when the software first appeared and how limited it was. Now it offers suggestions that were unimaginable 15 years ago — and it is increasingly accurate when it suggests whom instead of who.
It wasn’t so long ago that spell-checking software was only found in word processing programs; now programs like Acrobat and InDesign include spell-checking software and third-party vendors sell enhanced versions.
I don’t want to get hung up on a particular type of software because what editors do is so much more than just spell checking and grammar. Yet the issue remains: Do editors face technological extinction?
I think that if we do, it is yet many decades in the future. It is not because our routine skills cannot be emulated by a computer, but because of nuance. If the only thing that mattered was that there are no spelling mistakes in a document, editors would be far down the path to being jobless. But the real key to being a successful editor is nuance competence, that is, the ability to understand the subtleties of language and language choice and what those subtleties communicate.
Consider this example: “Up to 20% of fractures are missed on plain film.” Both the spelling and the sentence are correct and so should pass muster if the a computer is evaluating it. Yet an editor should note a problem: What does the sentence really mean? It simply isn’t clear. Does it mean that the radiologist will miss these fractures even though they appear on the plain film or does it mean that the imaging technique itself doesn’t display (i.e., misses) these fractures? The difference is one of nuance but is also one of great importance.
If it is the radiologist who will miss the fractures, then it is one type of problem that needs resolution. Perhaps better training or perhaps a second or third set of eyes to review the film or maybe something else. If it is the imaging technique that misses these fractures, then what other technique should be used either instead or as supplemental to the plain-film technique or is there no technique currently that will image these fractures? In both instances, questions of treatment are raised. This is a nuance that only a human (at least for now) can provide.
Consider this second example: “Left-handedness, above average weight and height for age, family history and spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis are associated with Scheuermann disease.” Again, nuance is important. The editor should be asking whether family history of or family history, and is meant. Each is a possibility and each leads to a different conclusion and perhaps affects treatment. How likely is it that computer software will be able to identify the problem and ask the pertinent question?
Because editing is more than just rote spelling and grammar, because it involves nuance and understanding of possibilities, it is likely that for the foreseeable future that editing will be a safe harbor while technology advances. Although some forms of white-collar work will disappear as technology advances, even some of the functions that editors currently perform may fall to technological advances, it is likely that editing as a profession will remain viable.
A companion question to viability, however, is whether potential clients will believe that there is a need to go beyond what computer software can do. This problem is one that editors face today. A goodly number of publishers and self-publishing authors believe that Microsoft Word’s built-in spell-checking and grammar software are all that is needed; the eye of the professional editor can be bypassed.
I recently received an “ad” from a new author for his new fantasy ebook. Although I found the summary in the notice a bit confusing, I decided to look at a sample of the ebook. Perhaps the summary got garbled but the ebook was fine. Within the first three pages I discovered a dozen problems, so I privately wrote to the author and mentioned a few, suggesting that it would be worth his while to hire a professional editor. The response I got was that he would take care of the problems himself.
My thought was: If you didn’t catch these types of error before you published the ebook, what makes you think you will find them now?
His response is the response I increasingly see as publishers and authors fall into the trap of believing that technology is the savior. Increasingly, no one thinks about the nuances of language. The consequence is that the story is not well communicated and readers (and authors) are made poorer for that lack of communication.
To combat the rise in reliance on technology, editors need to discuss nuance and to focus prospective clients on the nuances of writing, the things that technology is not adept at finding. This is truly our value. I expect that in the not-too-distant future software will be able to accurately distinguish between the proper and improper use of, for example, your and you’re, but not the nuances that choosing one word over another may entail. This is the editor’s strength and what should be pushed as we fight to maintain our relevance in the future.