Sunday, 1 January 2012

Literary word processing and empowerment

A few days ago I tweeted a link to a piece in the NYT  about the literary history of wordprocessing.
This piqued my interest as in the mid eighties I worked as a technology evangelist at the University of York in England and taught word processing (Wordstar no less) to undergraduates and at the same time spent a lot of time doing document conversion between the myriad of different word processors, disk formats and sizes, not to mention delving into WPS+ on Dec Vaxes.
At the time we didn’t have a set of public access pc classrooms and consequently were unable to offer a public access wordprocessing service. However the Vaxes came with WPS+, part of the Dec All in One office management suite and a decision was taken to deploy this as a way of meeting the pent up demand for access to wordprocessing by the student body. In hindsight,  a wonderfully wrong  decision as to a means of providing a student word processing platform accessible from every timesharing terminal on campus and utterly incompatible with anything else on the planet (we later converted to WordPerfect on VMS which was compatible with the DOS and Mac versions and as student PC labs and individually owned PC’s became more common the students gradually self migrated over to DOS and Windows.
However, this got me thinking.
People tend to equate the arrival of the PC with the arrival of wordprocessing. This is not the case. There were dedicated word processing systems from IBM, Wang, Dec all of which were based on the minicomputer/timesharing terminal model long before the personal desktop computer  was anything but a plaything, and there were specialist mainframe type services like Runoff and TeX (which is still with us) which was originally designed to talk to various high end typesetters for the production of journal articles and the like.
But all of this was used by scientists, lawyers and banks for specialist purposes. For example while TeX supported templates for letters it was not exactly a user friendly free form writing tool.
The things which made wordprocessing was first of all escaping from character oriented terminals to something resembling a properly addressable screen – something which good old Wordstar and Wordperfect never quite did – so that the user could see what the text would look like. This was of course part of the appeal of the first Macs, suddenly WYSIWYG was a reality, and secondly the rise of individual computing power, meaning that people could have a computer of their own, at home, in the study, to use when they wanted, without having to go to some ugly concrete data centre, interact with the priesthood who administered the machines (and who tended to come from a scientific programming background and never quite saw the point of wordprocessing), get an account, and then fight for a terminal.
Personal Computers were exactly that, personal and it was this that set productivity based computing free.
And that’s exactly what wordprocessing was – productivity based computing. No more days spent listening to the radio mindlessly retyping drafts to fix some spelling mistakes, or to restructure paragraphs, take text in, change the order,  or take text out. Suddenly editing was easy.
Of course there was a downside - a plethora of wordprocessing applications - all with incompatible document formats. Wordstar, WordPerfect and Word were fairly mainstream, there were suddenly popular applications like AmiPro, and strange ones like NotaBene preferred by humanities researchers. This meant that documents had to be converted between different formats to be shared, printed edited and so on - which spawned a whole range of conversion tools and filters, perhaps the best of which was Word For Word, some of whose filters still live on in OpenOffice. Of course nowadays we have a monoculture of Word, with the odd weedy sprout of open office in the difficult to reach corner ...
Wordprocessing’s unique selling point was the ease or revision, not the ease of production. Making the text look nice was secondary – in a world of monospaced Courier even Computer Modern or Arial suddenly looked sexy.
In fact the appearance of sexy looking documents had to await the arrival of decent inkjet and laser printers in the late eighties, before then all you could hope for was some nicer looking daisywheel printer text.
The appearance of better printing technologies at an affordable price of course caught word processing by surprise – hence the desktop publishing phenomenon of the late eighties/early nineties where text was fed into a separate program to do complicated page layouts. Now of course, applications like Office do it all for you.
But again the DTP phenomenon was about empowerment – no longer was it the case that you had to take your draft and have it properly and expensively typeset for publication (you may not believe me, but the number of publishers that rekeyboarded text into a typesetting system in the early nineties was phenomenal – the idea of converting between documents and correcting any introduced artefacts never seemed to gel with the professional typesetting community.
DTP and wordprocessing meant that you could produce good looking text and text for filmsetting from your desktop – not exactly self publishing but it allowed authors and manual writers control of the publication process.
Likewise multi lingual, multi alphabet text was a breeze – I remember in the early nineties after the fall of the Soviet Union and going to Nerja in Spain, and being amazed by the number of real estate agents with badly spelled, badly  handwritten Russian language adverts for villas (always with a swimming pool). For a moment I seriously thought of setting up in an office with a Mac and a Laserwriter producing Russian language real estate display  ads.
So, wordprocessing was about empowerment. It made the production of text easier by making the tasks of revision and publication simpler and meant that the drudgery was taken out of the writing process. It still meant that the process of creation was the same, but it gave control to the author – no longer having to fight with the copy bureau or indeed pay for the quite considerable costs of having the final version of a draft, or a thesis professionally produced, or indeed the need to have a publisher’s advance to defray the costs of production.
Incidentally it could probably be argued that scientific journals’ publication model is a result purely of the costs of rekeyboarding and typesetting journals in the seventies and eighties – as and others in the open source journal business demonstrate, that’s no longer the case, but that’s a an arguement for a different day.
Literary wordprocessing probably made the barriers to publication lower – easier to produce a revised draft, easier to get published without the need for agents and substantial advances. In short it made it easier for people who wanted to write, to write, just as nowadays anyone can produce an e-book from their desktop and distribute it themselves – which may be the saving of  obscure and learned texts. More mainstream publication still benefits from advertising and promotion, but for how long is an open question – the music industry has been through this already ….

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