Interview with Matthew Kirschenbaum – Kelsey Wilson

Kelsey Wilson
PUB 401
September 20, 2016

Development of the Digital Humanities in Manuel Portela’s
An Interview with Matthew Kirschenbaum

This interview provides a discussion with Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing released earlier this year. Following the themes of his novel, Kirschenbaum answers several questions that compare and contrast the development of writing through word processing and more traditional mediums including the typewriter and long form writing. His book centers on two decades spanning from 1964-1984, the era in which word processing went from new innovation towards becoming a modern convenience. Importantly, neither Portela nor Kirschenbaum offer an overall theory towards the impact of word processing technology onto the publishing industry, but merely offer a fascinating exploration of the many developments and changes that have led to such rapid change in literature production. Portela divides his interview into a series of nine questions and responses, and I will focus on three interesting points that I found throughout these questions.

Kirschenbaum’s closing comment to Portela’s question about significant moments in the adoption of word processing for literary writing purposes emphasizes the stunning diagram drawn by our professor in last week’s class: “the history [of word processing in literary writing] itself is rarely one of simply linear progress” (Portela 2016). Technological advancements that impacted publishing seemed to be coming out every year from the late 70s throughout the 80s. This can be exemplified through the release of the Apple II in 1977 and the Macintosh in 1984 from that company alone. However, despite many successful developments, many more were flops, resulting in circular patterns and dead ends throughout the history of word processing.

A very minor comment made by Kirschenbaum when answering a question about how discourse around word processing was developed as it became more advanced and prevalent throughout society really made me take pause. Departing from authors mentioning word processing in their works, Kirschenbaum cites 1984 as “the year the illustrator David Levine began sometimes drawing authors with computers instead of typewriters or fountain pens in his caricatures for the New York Review of Books” (Portela 2016). This moment seems incredibly significant to me as it implies that the majority of viewers of this comic would have been familiar with computers and word processors and their usage in literary writing in order for the illustration to make sense. Additionally, it is interesting that this quotation mentions fountain pens alongside typewriters as earlier tools of authors found in comics, as this made me question the fall of the typewriter due to the development of word processing. For me personally at least, when writing comes to mind I think of both the computer and a pen and paper while the typewriter falls by the wayside, and this made me wonder what the next tool of the trade to disappear will be.

As a World Literature major, I am very interested in how texts are shaped, both physically and figuratively, and this is something that is addressed in the seventh question of the interview. Kirschenbaum emphasizes both the texture of the prose and cites composition theorist Christina Haas’s notion of the “‘sense of the text,’” which I believe answer for both versions of how texts are shaped (Portela 2016). Both of these concepts refer to the mental model that an author has of their works in progress, and through the ease of word processing the need for a purely mental model is disappearing. Rather than having to keep tabs on various elements of their prose, writers can now refer back to a physical model of their work at a single click. This is also exemplified in the ability for instant changes to be made to a draft throughout the writing process, which definitely impacts a writer’s approach to their work as they are able to jump around and write in a non-linear fashion. Additionally, due to the ease that word processors lend to formatting, particularly in more recent developments that Kirschenbaum mentions in his book and interview, the possibilities for unique and engaging formatting of a text are far more diverse than those that a typewriter or earlier processor could offer.

To conclude, I believe that Kirschenbaum’s article was admirably neutral surrounding such a polarizing and hotly debated topic of the development of technology and its impact on literature. The article managed to bring facts about the history of word processing into a current debate, while making a variety of predictions about the future. I am most looking forward to observing the outcome of the paradox set forth by Portela regarding  the “excess of information” and the “loss of information” surrounding word processing technologies and digital information, as I believe that this will be a crucial element in the near future (Portela 2016).


Portela, Manuel. “This strange process of typing on a glowing glass screen: An Interview with Matthew Kirschenbaum.” Capa 4:2 (2016): Accessed 16 September 2016.

1 Comment

  1. From a world literature perspective, it’s interesting to ask where medium-driven shifts in literature intersect with cultural and linguistic shifts. Would we be able to track a globally significant change as the world gradually moved to word processing? Would that change look similar from place to place, or be shaped in turn by cultural contexts, national histories, etc.?

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