Clive Thompson writes about how software can shape our creative work:
Our tools, of course, affect our literary output. And all this made me wonder how other writing tools affect what’s written. I use Movable Type to write my blog, and I’m constantly annoyed by how small the text-entry boxes are. Whenever I write an entry, the text quickly flows down several box-lengths, which can make it hard to keep track of my argument. The problem, of course, is that the tool was designed with the idea that people would be writing extremely short, pithy entries … whereas my entries tend to drag on and on and on. It reminds me of the writing on one of those old, proprietary-hardware word-processors from the 80s, which were outfitted with screens that only let you see seven lines at a time.
WordPress lets you set the posting box to any size you want. But for longer posts, I compose in a text editor. It’s just handier. I have no doubt, though, that browser-based editing will eventually evolve to the point where I don’t need to do that.
Thompson also references Virginia Heffernan’s recent Times piece on word processors, which recommends the Zen-like blank-screen approach of the Mac-based WriteRoom. (Of course, the dominant DOS-based word processor, WordPerfect, offered what was very close to a blank screen; in a pre-Windows world, you didn’t have a browser or e-mail always competing for screen real estate.)
For those of us who learned Basic on a Zenith Z19 and started word processing on a Kaypro (anyone?), the retro green-and-black now takes the breath away. It’s not just the vintage features available on WriteRoom, it’s also that the whole experience is a throwback to a time before user-friendly interfaces came to protect us from technology’s dark places. In those days, the mystery of the human mind and the mystery of computation seemed both to illuminate and to deepen each other.
All of which brings back involuntary, wincing memories of one of my earliest word-processing experiences, at the Boston Phoenix. In the early ’80s the Phoenix had some ancient minicomputer sitting in a back room, feeding the newsroom’s small and much-fought-over handful of dumb terminals. When I say dumb, I mean really dumb. In a limitation that is inconceivable today, these terminals had so little memory that they could only handle a few hundred words at a time. Most Phoenix reviews were way longer than that, yet many of us composed directly on this system (who could afford one’s own PC on what that alternative paper paid its writers?).
To compose a lengthy piece you had to write a chunk (a “buffer”), then save it — sending it on a leisurely journey back to main memory — to make room on the terminal for the next installment of your opus. Unfortunately, these terminals also had a habit of crashing. Too often you’d press that “send” key only to see the screen freeze, and you’d know then that you’d just lost all your work stretching back to the last time you’d saved your work. Only sometimes pressing “save” would itself trigger the dreaded freeze — a tragic Catch-22 indeed.
As a result — in a tableau that somehow seemed to epitomize all the pain of human composition in a technological age — you might occasionally spy some desperate writer hunched over notebook and pen in front of a frozen screen, painstakingly copying the slim remnant of his verbiage that was still visible, rescuing some fragment of inspiration before the inevitable reboot wiped the words clean.
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