[SIGCIS-Members] just published: Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

Matthew Kirschenbaum mkirschenbaum at gmail.com
Fri Apr 22 05:28:57 PDT 2016

Hi all,

In keeping with what I understand to be acceptable list policy, I am
posting this one-time book announcement:

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, published by Harvard
University Press/Belknap Press


I'm especially excited to post it here, not just to sell a book or two, or
even because it draws on the published work of some people here, but
because I've followed the last couple of years of discussion about the
growing popular and interdisciplinary academic interest in the history of
computers and technology, including the satisfaction of seeing this work
reach a wider audience but also some of the frustrations (and abuses) that
have followed. I've tried very hard in the book to be respectful, both to
the history and to the community of historians who have been working in it
for a lot longer than I have. I can't be the one to judge how well I've
succeeded, however.

My own background is in English literature, and so Track Changes is an
example of what literary history looks like when it meets the history of
computing. Besides many stories about writers and their computers, the book
includes extended accounts of IBM's MT/ST and other early word processors,
such as the Redactron Data Secretary. It draws on original oral history
interviews I  conducted with Evelyn Berezin, Charles Simonyi, Seymour
Rubinstein, Andy van Dam, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Tesler, and many others.

Here's a very brief excerpt (citations omitted); I've also attached the
book flier.

Best, Matt


On March 20, 1981, the *New York Times* Op-Ed page carried a brief item
musing that historians and biographers might soon be in for “slim
pickings.” What precipitated this pronouncement was a report that Jimmy
Carter, just months out of office and hard at work on his memoirs for
Bantam, had lost several pages of text after hitting the wrong keys on his
brand new $12,000 Lanier word processor. Word processing, the *Times*
speculated, threatened to put historians—“those bloodhounds of the paper
trail”—out of business. “Archivists,” meanwhile, “will be deprived of words
scratched out, penciled in and transposed with wandering arrows. They will
have to make do with electronically perfect texts.”

*Perfect.* No other word so encapsulates the aspirations as well as the
anxieties that s accrued around word processing. We remember WordPerfect,
of course, the software that rose to dominate the market after WordStar
(from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s), but there were also now
largely forgotten programs like LetterPerfect and Perfect Writer.
Etymologically, “perfect” comes to us from the Latin *perfectus,* by way of
Old French; the original Latin meaning encompassed the idea of
completeness, the state of fullness or of being finished. The familiar hand
gesture, index finger bent to touch tip of thumb, other fingers stiffened
in accent, is a way of visualizing that condensed state of ripeness, the
attainment of closure and completion. In word processing’s parlance,
“perfect” was meant to connote a finished document, flawlessly formatted
and printed, cleanly and clearly expressed. The sense of completion,
meanwhile, also spoke to the desire for efficiency and productivity, a zeal
for getting the job done.

Could a single invention both improve the quality of the work being
performed and accelerate the pace at which it was completed? It seemed too
good to be true, yet this dual ideal—the quest for flawless efficiency and
effectively flawless results—was present from the very inception of word
processing as a concept and technology. In 1974 a consultant named Walter
A. Kleinschrod produced a report on word processing for the American
Management Association. “The touch of a button,” he wrote, “triggers a
perfect final copy.” A second AMA text echoed and embellished this
language: “The typist can push a button and the machine, tirelessly and
flawlessly, chugs out a perfect draft—once, twice, a hundred times if
required, without fatigue or the errors fatigue can bring.” Whatever else
it was then, word processing was also a form of futurism that, as Thomas
Haigh deftly notes, was of a piece with a push-button lifestyle and,
indeed, food processing, which was introduced to consumers by Cuisinart at
just about the same time. As word processing continued to mature and also
transition from dedicated stand-alone systems to early personal computers,
this original ideal lost none of its appeal. “With a word processing
system,” wrote computer scientist Ivan Flores a decade later in 1983, “you
can actually produce a perfect document.”

Error was the archenemy of perfection: typos, misprints, mistakes, caked-up
layers of correction fluid, and patches of paper rubbed raw by erasures—all
of these disrupted the smooth, homogeneous surface of an impeccably
presented text. So obsessed were early office managers with the pernicious
influence of error on efficiency that entire studies were commissioned; the
habits of typists were scrutinized at the most minute levels. It was known,
for example, that a secretary making a mistake in the first few lines of
the page was likely to remove it and feed in a fresh sheet and start anew;
a mistake introduced farther down the page, however, would be attacked by
the eraser. It was known how long the rubbing and retyping would take,
along with the erasure and correction of any carbons associated with the
original page. And, of course, it was known how much this all cost—in
paper, in carbons, in erasers, and above all, in time.

Word processing promised to change all that. “Errors,” proclaimed the
Kleinschrod report, “are no longer sins of incompetence, destroyers of
confidence.” Indeed, they were so “easily rectified” that “first-time
perfection” was no longer demanded, marking an astonishing shift in
attitude. “Recording on magnetic tape is just as easy as typing at your
fastest speed,” assured a roughly contemporary manual prepared by IBM’s
Office Products Division in support of its most advanced word processing
product at the time, the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (see Chapter
8). “Typographical errors are corrected merely by backspacing and typing
over the incorrect character. A perfect tape is created which gives you a
perfect copy . . . and no erasing!”

Matthew Kirschenbaum
Associate Professor of English
Associate Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
University of Maryland
http://mkirschenbaum.net or @mkirschenbaum on Twitter
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