The debate community has always repurposed technology to suit its needs. My earliest memory of this involved taping photocopied quotations to recipe cards from the kitchen. After that, it was Rubbermaid storage tubs and accordion folders. Each time, the adapted item served some specific need created by the changing nature of the debate activity, and each time the technology wasn't a perfect fit. You can only fit a short quote on a 3 x 5 recipe card, and accordions were definitely not designed to contain the number of pages that accumulate around an Aff.
We've done this again with our paperless strategies. We've taken existing technologies that are highly accessible and fairly inexpensive and done our best to make them conform to our needs. And it almost works. I am sure that everyone has noticed the delays introduced into individual debates by paperless systems, from the time taken to move speeches back and forth on geek sticks to technical difficulties with the computers themselves. Some of this is a lack of familiarity with the system and the fact that most people don't actually know how to use their computers.
Most of it, though, is structural. Most teams, at least at the college level, are using a paperless system with Microsoft Word as the core technology. And why not? The software is ubiquitous, it is very easy to format text, and the macros represent a way to create custom commands necessary to build and execute a debate speech.
There are problems with using Microsoft Word as the primary method for storing and presenting evidence in debates. In my opinion, these problems are significant enough that further developing a paperless system without replacing Word represents a waste of valuable resources. Here are the big three:
1. Word is designed to format text, not data. The problem is that evidence files are collections of data that happen to be in text format. Every piece of evidence actually includes a series of discrete strings of data. There's the quote, the year, the author, the citation, all of which has a different format and all of which should be easily searchable.
We need to recognize that what we call "evidence" and the way we file and use it calls for a database application, not a word processing application. Database applications are often designed for the filing, searching, retrieving, and sorting that we do with evidence. Don't fret - you won't have to learn to write SQL queries. We'll need a database with a user interface that allows us to quickly perform the functions that macros currently perform.
2. Word is variable across platforms. Any debater using a Mac knows this, and even when they get the paperless systems based on Word to work on the Mac, it is buggy and unreliable. Macros work on some versions, and not on others. The upcoming Mac version looks like it will support Macros, but that doesn't mean the one after that will. The difference between editions of Word, even when limiting the field to Windows editions, is significant. You either have to troubleshoot every computer being used by the coaches and debaters or standardize the platform.
Chances are that a private company of 20 or so people, about the size of the Georgia Debate Union, would have to standardize their platform so that they could afford the IT support. This is probably not an option for the Georgia Debate Union as we do not issue computers to individual debaters for personal use, but we have standardized the reading computers that each team carries for this exact reason.
The best thing about the database and programming languages that characterize the web is that they are platform neutral. In fact, websites look and work basically the same way in Firefox or Chrome on Windows and Mac. Safari generally looks the same, too. And if you're still using Internet Explorer... well, there's nothing to be done for you.
3. Word is desktop software and desktop software is so five minutes ago. While a bit overstated, software development is moving away from the desktop. Desktop applications are platform dependent, harder to hook into the web and mobile devices, and require patching on the single user level (rather than updating the code everyone uses at once). Web applications like Google Docs will continue to get better, and virtually every improvement in browser support for new features involves either better video or better database interaction.
A web-based, or at least web-technology based, solution to paperless would allow databased evidence to be served to a laptop, a mobile device, or exported in a variety of formats as needed. And you don't necessarily need internet access to use web technologies. Getting set up will probably require more technology expertise than creating a Word document, but the long term benefits far outweigh the initial investment. The debate community is at the point where they are starting to se financial dividends form paperless in the form of reduced travel and printing expenses. Most of this money should be used to increase participation in the activity, but a tithe should be set aside for improving the paperless system.
Published in: Paperless Debate