I can’t remember the last time I used an electric typewriter. It most likely would have been in the course of typing out an address on an envelope—but then again, I can’t readily call to mind the last time I did that with anything other than that old-fashioned technology, the ballpoint pen, which itself is not really all that old school. The mass commercial distribution of the ballpoint pen in the United States dates only to about 1945, which means its triumphal appearance in the writing market occurred just under twenty years before that of the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, IBM’s radically rethought typewriting device. Released in 1964, the MT/ST was the first machine of its kind, equipped with a magnetic-tape memory component that allowed you to edit text before it was actually printed on the page. Corporations were considered the primary beneficiaries of the new technology, a wrinkle on the electric typewriter that arrived with considerable media enthusiasm. The makers of the MT/ST saw the contemporary office groaning under the weight of metastasizing paperwork and envisioned making money off companies hoping to streamline the costs of secretarial labor and increase productivity. Writers were something of an afterthought: Whatever effect IBM’s product would have on authors—high or low, commercial or experimental—was collateral.
But if the introduction of a new type of word-processing machine started a slow-burning revolution in how writers went about their business, it was a revolution nonetheless, drastically altering how authors did their work. The primary focus of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new history of word processing, Track Changes, is a twenty-year span, from the moment that IBM brought out the MT/ST until 1984, when the Apple Macintosh first offered a glimpse of an unchained future with its televised appeal to a nation of would-be Winston Smiths.
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As Kirschenbaum’s history reminds us, the story of personal computers supplanting older systems dedicated to word processing—and writers’ larger commitment to abandoning pens and ink and typewriter ribbons and correction fluid—was hardly the fait accompli that we sometimes think it was. His book attempts a full literary history of this shift. To do so, he ranges across a number of phenomena: the technical and managerial prehistories of the word-processing revolution; the imaginative, sometimes allegorical literary responses to how work was managed (from Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 “U-Write-It,” which fantasized a fully automated literary production line, to John Updike’s 1983 poem “INVALID.KEYSTROKE,” a sort of ode to the little dot that appeared on the screen between words in early word processors like his own Wangwriter II); and most prominently, how word processing both tapped into and reflected writers’ anxieties about their whole enterprise. The last didn’t appear with the first wizardly word processor or dazzling software program, and it hasn’t gone away. What Kirschenbaum doesn’t do is reflect on how the “program era” affected authors’ sentence structure, book length, and the like. Track Changes is less concerned with big data than with bit-by-bit change.
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Learning how to operate earlier systems took diligence, with coded combinations of keys that allowed users to manipulate chunks of text. Plus, the various systems weren’t mutually compatible. If you bought a Kaypro or a Tandy or a Commodore, you were stuck with the limitations (or enjoyed the advantages) of the particular product in ways that seem impossible to imagine for anyone using a laptop today.
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Yet the first generation of word-processing systems attracted a legion of proselytizing adopters. Kirschenbaum includes a roster of acolytes—from Michael Chabon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ralph Ellison to Anne Rice and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—whose motley makeup gives a sense of how the appeal of word processing crossed genre boundaries. Many were loyal to specific programs. George R. R. Martin remains a user of WordStar to this day, and William F. Buckley never abandoned it.
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What made word-processing devices much more than just souped-up typewriters was not only that they gave you the ability to edit at the same time that you wrote, or that they eliminated or seriously curtailed the effort of correcting from typewritten pages. Seeing text revealed on a screen, even in the technologically costive form offered by the earliest word processors, provided an unprecedented opportunity to picture the manuscript as a whole and with an immediacy that typewriting didn’t permit. The acronym WYSIWYG—What You See Is What You Get—delivered perhaps the same frisson for writers in the early 1980s as Frank Stella’s “What You See Is What You See” had to ambitious painters a generation earlier. Even the intricate system of keyboard commands required to move passages or insert italics or signal word breaks seemed akin to the freedom of writing in longhand, the fingers never leaving the keyboard, with none of the “mechanical” intrusion of typing and retyping manuscripts: It combined the “efficiency of typing with a hands-on, no-nonsense approach to really handling a manuscript—almost as if the writer was somehow ruffling the electronic pages, marking them up and blocking off passages, sorting them into piles and flagging them with bits of scrap paper or colored ribbon or bubble gum wrappers.”
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Kirschenbaum’s history also relates a more profound erasure, that of the unseen hands, mostly women’s, the typists and office workers whose value was an intentional casualty of the revolution. There’s a good bit of ironic justice, then, in his nomination for the first novel written on a word processor: the British writer Len Deighton’s 1970 Bomber, the execution of which began sometime in 1968 on a European version of the MT/ST mastered by Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley. Deighton did the laborious work of constructing a complex narrative from a typescript; Handley did the laborious work of making his scissors-and-paste method of integrating cross-cutting narratives obsolete. The first book, perhaps, to be created on a word processor was hence a collaborative production. The words “indisputably belong to Len Deighton. But the hands that recorded and processed them using the MT/ST belong to Ellenor Handley.”
Link to the rest at BookForum
A couple of impacts of word processors on law offices that may be of interest:
Legal secretaries were the crème de la crème of the secretarial world (ditto for statistical typists – think adding the top row of numbers and symbols to the three rows with letters without slowing down). For many purposes, legal secretaries had to be exquisitely accurate. In many offices, typed wills, for example, could have no errors. A simple correction, even via a correcting Selectric, might look like an heir had changed the will for nefarious purposes. A mistake in the last sentence on a page required that the entire page be retyped. White-out was entirely unacceptable.
Watching a legal secretary type at impossibly high speed with no errors was a memorable experience.
When dedicated word processors made their appearance, most legal secretaries were relieved. Type the form will once, save it on the word processor, then making minor changes for each client sounded like heaven. However, it marked the beginning of the end for extraordinary typists.
When large law firms began to buy very expensive word processors that were much larger than a typewriter, putting one outside of each attorney’s, or even each partner’s office was not financially practical, to say nothing of the enormous noise the printers made as they hammered out page after page.
For a period of time, the word processors and their operators were installed in a separate, soundproof room. Extremely fast typists listened to dictation or worked from marked up first drafts, then delivered the clean copies to waiting attorneys and secretaries.
In order to justify the cost of the machines, some large law offices ran their word processors 24 hours per day with three shifts of typists. PG remembers working on a complex document at a Los Angeles law firm at 3:00 AM and picking up new drafts from a room with a half-dozen typists hammering away at whatever needed to be completed in the middle of the night.