The Program Era – bookforum.com / current issue
A cultural history looks at how word processing changed the way we write.
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. (As with Bobby Thomson’s home run, millions still claim they remember exactly where they were when they saw Ridley Scott’s celebrated commercial for Apple during the third quarter of an otherwise forgettable Los Angeles Raiders Super Bowl blowout.)
The word-processing program that the new Mac included, MacWrite, was fairly primitive—it couldn’t handle documents longer than eight pages, a boon only to the briefest of short-story writers—and it would take years for the mousy point-and-click innovations to knock off the market Goliaths of WordStar and WordPerfect. But the timing of Apple’s campaign couldn’t have been better. “In 1978 or 1979,” Kirschenbaum notes, “writers using a word processor or a personal computer were part of the vanguard. By 1983 or 1984 they were merely part of the zeitgeist.”
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.