Documentary Tools: Word Processing and Literature

We, today, remain fixated on the power and implications of digital technologies for the creation and maintenance of records, documents, and texts (among other things). Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that technologies, including pre-digital varieties, have been the source of all written information since the beginning – from clay tablets to manuscript and printed books to typewriters and computers – and the list could go on. What has made it difficult to sort out, of course, is that the ongoing development of the computer has been accompanied by exaggerated claims of its power and potential to transform our lives (although we can find similar claims with earlier technologies such as photocopying and microfilming). It is difficult for us to not see or hear claims about the transformative power of the computer in every aspect of our lives (for example, it is difficult to watch television for more than a few minutes without being bombarded with such messages), and it almost seems as if we repeat this often enough it must be true.

There is research being done about the actual implications of computers on many different aspects of our lives. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016) is a book that “seeks to narrate and describe in material and historical terms how computers, specifically word processing, became integral to literary authorship and literary writing” (p. xiii). The resultant book is the most detailed study on word processing yet done, drawing on memoirs, interviews, and the primary and secondary literature on the subject in an engaging analysis. The book focuses on the period 1964 to 1984 when word processing emerged and was adopted by a wide array of writers (by the latter date about fifty percent of authors were using word processing). Kirschenbaum contends that word processing has been a neglected aspect of the history of the Information Age, and I doubt few would argue with him; now, at least, it is no longer neglected and serves as a model for additional research.

While studying word processing, Kirschenbaum offers insights into many other aspects of computing’s implications for organizational and individual life. “Organizationally,” he reflects, “then, word processing was about restructuring work, reclassifying roles in the work force, relocating people in the workplace, and reconfiguring the individual workstation all under the guise of the centralizing and automating the composition, transcription, reproduction, and distribution – the processing – of the printed word on paper” (p. 148). For someone of my vintage, you can map the implications by thinking of how you first adopted word processing and then evolved with it, often in subtle ways, over time. I can attest that how I write has been affected by word processing, sometimes making it better, but sometimes not improving what I write. Kirschenbaum places word processing within the development of business and managerial approaches and then considers how word processing became used for a much greater range of functions and activities. He also relates it to other developments in the Information Age, such as, “Floppies were to the personal computing industry what the paperback book was to mass market publishing, and 78 (later 45) rpm singles were to pop music” (p. 220). There are scores of such assessments in this study, each one offering additional topics for research.

Kirschenbaum’s study doesn’t shy away from the debates, rants, and musings about the consequences of computing – after all, tomes with this vantage fill bookshelves in both libraries and bookstores (and in the latter, they are often featured works – if only for a brief interlude). He writes, “Our current technological moment is marked by a tremendous paradox as fragile as electronic media are and as fleeting to the historical record as they may be, they create enormous and potentially unprecedented opportunities for scholarship” (p. 209). Or to put it another way, while I write about the challenges of preserving digital records, I also use digital tools to compose and to publish. Perhaps I have given up myself in preserving my own archival testimony (and I think I have), merely hoping that something of my work will remain, perhaps that that is in print form.

Kirschenbaum reminds us that writing, that is producing literature, was never seen as an important market by those developing and marketing word processing software. However, some writers embraced it and produced new work, testimony to the fact that writers are artists with creative skills and aims and that all technologies have unintended consequences. Writers often seek to make something new, new genres that can be read in different ways. In examining word processing and its connection to literary activities in this two decade period, Kirschenbaum ultimately concludes that it was the “first real ‘killer app’” (p. 334). Still, we can doubt some of these kinds of assertions. I note for example, that when I visit an art museum or read about painting I often see representations of people reading and writing, a focus extending back hundreds of years. I rarely see art depicting the computer as reading or writing device (although I am sure these exist somewhere). Perhaps more time needs to pass.



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