Matthew Kirschenbaum: De-naturalizing the Word Processor

Growing up in the 90’s, word processors were simply part of the backdrop of my everyday life and I never thought much about their emergence; they seemed to be the natural ‘upgrade’ to the typewriter as the dominantly used writing technology. What I appreciated about the interview, This Strange Process of Typing on a Glowing Grass Screen, was Matthew Kirschenbaum’s de-naturalization of a process that I had had previously mistaken as natural: the transition from typewriting to word processing.

As Kirschenbaum stated, word processing was not inevitable. He demonstrated this by highlighting examples of how “messy” and non-linear the transition to word processing really was, beginning with significant differences in design. While the typewriters confined writers to a rigidly linear process due to it’s engineering (i.e. one did not even have the freedom to delete text and could thus only proceed in a forward fashion), word processors offered freedom (i.e. the ability to delete text and to start from virtually anywhere; one did not have to proceed in a linear fashion from beginning to end when writing, since the cursor could move anywhere on the page). In this way, Kirschenbaum suggested that word processing was actually more reminiscent of the pen rather than the typewriter in its freedom and provision of access to the entire document space.

Kirschenbaum also outlined challenges that people faced when adapting to this new technology. For instance, buyers had a difficult time choosing the best word processing program, due to the sheer variety that emerged and their incompatible features. Adding to this was more befuddlement about how to actually use the new technology. For instance, users needed to be instructed on the once complicated process of deleting text and to be reassured them that the text still existed, even when it rolled off the edge of the screen and out or sight. Such considerations, which seem like common sense to us nowadays, were once very foreign—a fact that I found very amusing and interesting at the same time.

Further adding to Kirschenbaum’s argument about the “messiness” of this transition were conflicting attitudes people had about word processors. This was surprising to me; I would have thought that the freedom of revision and composition that word processors offered would send people jumping for joy immediately—which some did, in fact, do—but others still approached the change with fear, apprehension, and resistance. For them, the coding behind word processing was very strange. People even feared that the ‘finished look’ and professional appearance that word processors gave to written work would deceive writers into thinking that their work was more polished than it really was. Even more fascinating was how this tone of apprehension shone through in cultural works, like in fiction stories about “paranormal word processors” and the like.

Yet other cultural works served to do the opposite: rather than instilling more fear and apprehension towards the new technology, some cultural images—in the form of illustrations, advertisements, photographs, etc.—served to normalize and assimilate word processors into everyday life. For instance, portraying writers with word processors rather than typewriters helped naturalize the use of word processors in the creation of literature.

What I found particularly intriguing was the tendency for the producers of cultural imagery to feel the need to draw connections between word processors and their predecessor technologies (i.e. typewriters and pens) in order to make them ‘safer’ to consume. It was almost as if by putting an image of a pen directly beside an image of a word processor—the former having already been accepted by mainstream society—they hoped to transfer the ‘acceptance’ people had for the older technology onto the newer one (this would probably make for a very interesting semiotic analysis!).

Finally, I was drawn by Kirschenbaum’s assertion of word processing as being the Internet’s infrastructure. Not only was text used primarily for surfing the Web in the form of online searches, etc., but the coding behind Internet functions was also composed largely of text. Kirschenbaum’s interviewer, Manuel Portela, went a step further by suggesting that word processing had enabled a new form of “behavioral and social control,” handed to corporations in the form of Big Data: online searches were now analyzed computationally by algorithms, giving rise to recommendation systems, customized advertisements, and other forms of surveillance.

At the time of their invention, writing technologies like the pen, typewriter, and word processor emerged under the assumption that writers would profit from their own writing in the form of money, recognition, or the thrill of having their ideas spread widely beyond their lifetime. Yet, who would have predicted that word processing, in terms of text used for online activities, would enable corporations to collect private information about writers that they did not intend to be identified—such as their demographics, preferences, and online behaviors—and to profit by selling them without the writers’ (i.e. Internet users’) direct consent?

Perhaps, as Kirschenbaum eloquently stated, writers had a small reason to be “simultaneously captivated and terrified by the prospect of consigning their prose to the mutely glowing glass screen, wondering what would happen once the pixels went out.”

1 Comment

  1. You end on a fascinating note, here. Perhaps early authors weren’t as paranoid as they seem from our current perspective. Perhaps they were right to be at least a tad suspicious about the separation of form and content that word processing allowed.

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