Thinking Historically About the Word Processor

All of my students grew up with word processors.  To understand a world in which word processors do not exist takes an act of historical imagination.  This piece by Clive Thompson could almost work as a primary source in a history class. It is a first-hand account of a person describing a world that, for the most part, no longer exists.  Here is a taste:

When I first got my hands on a word processor, it felt absolutely uncanny: The words! They’re … they’re moving around! THEY LOOK LIKE PRINTED WORDS BUT THEY’RE MOVING AROUND. But pretty quickly I grasped the new style of composition that was possible, and I loved it. Precisely as Englebart envisioned, I could write longer, more discursive drafts, letting my thoughts wander into ever-more-creative-or-weirder nooks, and taking arguments to their logical endpoint just to see where they’d lead. I could give myself mental permission to do this because it was easy to redact the best parts into my final essay. Robert Frost talked about how he couldn’t tell what a poem was going to be about until he’d finished writing it. That’s what word processors did to my academic and journalistic writing: As the mechanical act of writing became easier, it became easier to write prodigiously as a way of sussing out my own thoughts.

It’s hard to remember now, but many people back in the 80s totally freaked out about word processing. I recall professors worrying that it would make students write more sloppily, and even think more sloppily. The fluidity of cutting and pasting seemed intellectually suspicious. I even remember one of my TAs arguing — in a lovely foreshadowing of today’s fears that “the Internet is making us stupid” — that cutting and pasting would render our generation unable to craft a coherent argument, because the sheer slipperiness of digital prose, its slithy rearrangeability, would render our ideas and prose rootless, nonsequential, and flighty.

I tell my students that the past is a foreign country.  I am guessing it does not get much more foreign to them than someone having to write a paper long-hand and then type up it  up with no backspace button or no ability to cut and paste.

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