Track Changes

Anyone interested in the impact of technology on our work as scholars and writers should read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (2016), and check out some supplemental material here. The book is not only entertaining to read, but it intersects with so many of the key issues facing our engagement with technology today, that it may well spawn hundreds of master’s theses and not a few dissertations. Kirschenbaum surveys the use of word processors in the literary community beginning in the late 1970s and concluding with their ubiquitous presence in the contemporary world. The book is full of room-sized IBMs, boxy Kaypros, glitchy Osbournes, and iconic computers from Wang and Apple which transformed the way that authors (and the rest of us) wrote. (The book evoked a good bit of nostalgia for me as I vividly remember writing in WordStar on a Kaypro II during middle school!). 

The book has so much to offer a careful reader that I can’t imaging writing anything approaching a full review. Unlike many books on media archaeology these days, Kirschenbaum’s book does not hit you in the face with a body of dense theory (although it is clear that the likes of Freidrich Kittler and other media theory darlings are just off stage) and instead tells engaging stories about authors’ engagement with word processors. Kirschenbaum’s stories explore the economy of writing and authors’ hopes for greater efficiency, the changing expectations of publishers, and need to facilitate collaborative writing at distance. He also unpacks the anxieties authors faced with adapting to new technologies from the fear of losing words and pages to the expense and complexity of purchasing (and using) a new machine in the early days of personal computing.

Here are few observation on a book that you should just go and read:

1. The Art of the Rewrite. As someone who generally writes on the screen and then revises on paper, I am a firm believer that writing is revision. One of the strands that runs through Kirschenbaum’s book is the way in which writing “in light on glass” transformed the work of revision from the painstaking task of retyping pages of text to revising words on the screen. I didn’t realize how early the “cut and paste” commands existed in word processing and how fundamental the ability to insert and move text around in a document was to the functioning of work processing programs. It had the potential to make revision process far more dynamic activity and to destabilize the integrity of the text throughout the writing process. I found myself deeply curious about how authors understood their manuscripts at various phases of the revision process.

Did the ease with which even the earliest word processors allowed texts to be reorganize lead writers to think about their texts differently? I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the ease with which fragmentation that was possible with digitally produced texted encouraged more modular writing processes and echoed the “cut-up” practices associated with, say, William Burroughs. I have considered whether the our increasing use of digital tools in archaeology has a similar tendency to fragment the site. 

2. Writing is Work. Kirschenbaum did a remarkable job emphasizing how valuable word processing was to writers who wrote massive quantities of books to make a living. Jerry Pournelle was among the earliest adopters of a word process and credited it with a massive increase in efficiency. Isaac Asimov was a somewhat later adopter of a personal computer and word processor, but he likewise enjoyed improvements in the tidiness of his manuscripts and his ability to put words on the page quickly. 

By emphasizing the needs of this kind of writer, Kirschenbaum shifts the emphasis from the author as artist to author as self-employed worker in words. The word processor goes from a machine that risks compromising delicate creative processes to a boon to the real work of authors for whom word count, deadlines, and efficiency matter. Of course, writers never work in a vacuum. Kirschenbaum considers the secretaries, assistants, typists, spouses, and even publishers who worked alongside authors to make manuscripts into books. There is, for example, a blatantly gendered aspect to the spread of the word processor as it was marketed to administrative assistants, typists, and secretaries who were predominantly hwomen. The word processor, in this context, moves beyond the writerly task of the author and mediates between the various actors involved in the writing as work. As a device, the word processor intersected with the social, economic, and even personal roles of everyone involved in the creative process. 

3. Writing Material. Throughout the book, there is this delicate thread of that emphasizes the materiality of the writing process. The feeling of the keyboard, for example, was a concern for writers who were sometimes transition from the rather unforgiving keys of a manual typewriter. The size and resolution of the screen also shaped how writers engaged their texts with the limited number of lines on the screen even encouraged one author to write in shorter paragraphs.

Some of the early word processors took up entire rooms and others took pride of place on desks, living rooms, and writing rooms. Artifacts from early word processing, including word processors themselves, have filled museums and archives and communicated their materiality as effectively as typewriters and stacks of manuscript pages have represented the output of authors using more analogue tools. Just as well-worn ribbons preserve traces of an author’s writing, so disks of all sizes and shape have come to stand in for the a writer’s work. Kirschenbaum and the authors themselves dwell intermittently on how the metal boxes and magnetic disks and tapes form an intimate part of the writing process.

Any number of these topics – and many more throughout the book – would reward further exploration, research, and narrating, but Kirschenbaum does a nice job of presenting a sufficiently sweeping overview of the history of word processing to open doors. For my interest in the digital tools used in archaeology, his work is decisive in making clear that word processors are not simply tools that writers use dispassionately to perform their tasks, but cogs in a larger literature machine (my term) that extends from the creative idea to the published work. The ambivalence of many authors in adopting new tools was a not a testimony to a kind of luddism, but rather a reasoned skepticism that ranged from concerns about disrupting honed creative processes to the learning curve dealing with new technologies. The adoption of digital tools in both writing and archaeology transformed the social landscape of these practice because these tools mediate between various individuals with various skill sets required to produce a final product. Kirschenbaum’s work offers a kind of history and ethnography of writing practice at the dawn of the digital age. It would be quite valuable for some eager soul to consider the dawn of digital practices in archaeology the same way. 

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