Take the Lazy Way Out? That's Far Too Much Work!
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Ann Owed Two the Spelling Checker

Eye have a spelling checker It came with my Pea Sea It plane lee marks four my revue Miss steaks aye can knot sea. Eye ran this poem threw it, Your sure reel glad two no. Its vary polished in it's weigh My checker tolled me sew.

--Web doggerel, author unknown

Honest--this column isn't about spell-checking homonyms; it's about laziness. The human capacity for avoiding, ignoring, or casually dismissing even the simplest and least demanding of important tasks inspires awe. We're pathetic.

Precisely how lazy do you have to be not to run your presentation through a spell checker? In theory, no e-mail, memo, resume, or report should ever have typos. Spell checkers are ideal for culling such errors. Yet everyday communications are infested with mistyped words and grammatical errors that have somehow eluded capture.

Don't blame the homonyms. Even spell checkers that flag mistakes, like using "their" when you mean "there," are frequently ignored. It's grotesque; technology has created a new standard, not of accuracy but of laziness. People are too lazy to take the lazy way out.

Slothfulness afflicts practically every facet of the digital enterprise. Many organizations distribute spreadsheet macros to manage budgets and allocate resources. How well and how often are the assumptions embedded in those macros tested and validated? Raymond Panko, a professor at the University of Hawaii, reviewed a decade's worth of studies on spreadsheets and found that an average of 30% of spreadsheets have errors built into their rules. We're talking misplaced decimal points, transposed digits, and wrong signs. A 1996 study by the British arm of Coopers & Lybrand found that 90% of spreadsheets contained errors. A Big Five accounting firm could build a nice practice digitally auditing spreadsheet assumptions.

So who's lazier? The corporate macro makers who inadequately test their spreadsheets? Or the unquestioning software sheep shearing themselves with tainted computations? While "cell checkers" aren't yet as sophisticated as their textual counterparts, the fact remains that those that exist are sorely underused.

Our failure to take even minimal prophylactic steps to prevent typos and math mistakes is shockingly reminiscent of doctors who don't wash their hands between seeing patients. Almost 150 years after Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated the link between physician hygiene and infectious transmission, surveys and surreptitious videotaping affirm that a significant minority of health-care professionals don't adequately wash between patient exams. While the spread of disease can't rightly be compared with the spread of typos, the laziness that underlies them surely can.

Technology and laziness are locked in a vicious cycle. Technology has always promised to make people more productive and free us to think higher thoughts. Perversely, each innovation tempts us to further slack off. Where spell checkers once reviewed documents after they were written, they now intercede even as people type. Tomorrow they might forbid users from e-mailing a report or memo with errors.

Indeed, firms would be wise to ask their people, "Did you spell-check this document?" or "Did you 'cell-check' this spreadsheet?" before letting them distribute their work. But there's the rub: Do we improve quality by making people more accountable for their errors--or less?

A good case can be made that because so many people are so lazy, responsibility should be taken out of their hands. I know several editors and executives who so despise typos and grammatical errors that they run incoming correspondence through their own spell checkers before reading it. Sophisticated servers could check and correct documents before letting people access them. Just forget trying to make workers less lazy and negligent--and let the machines handle it.

Conversely, technology could take the hard line and push responsibility for errors back to the individuals who make them. In addition to blocking typo-riddled e-mails, servers could alert the boss that someone has failed to correct errors in a memo about to be sent to a key client. Then again, perhaps the boss would be too lazy or too busy to read the message. How do we handle that?

Humans will always be lazy. The question is, Should technology be used to overcome laziness or to discourage it? It's unclear which approach will require more work. Technology makes managing laziness more of a chore.

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative and author of Serious Play. Reach him at michael_schrage@fortunemail.com.