The Grail Code 
The Second Revolution

When the great romances of the Holy Grail were being composed, writing was a very different business. In fact, it wasn’t a business at all.

There was no printing in those days, at least not in Europe. (The Chinese had figured it out. They had also figured out tea, the fountain of true civilization.) The writer produced the book; the marks he made with his pen on the page were what the reader saw.

Gutenberg changed all that. Now there was a sort of gate between the writer and the reader—a gate that was guarded by a third party, namely the printer. The writer produced a certain number of words, but it was the printer who decided which of those words would appear before the public, and in what form.

That’s still true today, but the number of gatekeepers has multiplied. The writer deals with an agent; the agent deals with some specific editor; the specific editor answers to a general editor; the general editor answers to a publisher; and the publisher answers to God, who usually takes the form of some oil magnate.

We’re so used to that model of publishing that we hardly ever ask ourselves whether we’ve outgrown it. Yet it came about mostly because of technologies we don’t use anymore. Printing was a skilled trade that demanded specialization. You couldn’t be expected to manage it just because you were a fairly clever writer, and anyway you could hardly find time both to print and to write.

The first generation of word processors was designed to work within that old system. I might even say that those old word processors were specifically designed not to produce copy ready for printing. Instead, they were made to be more capable and efficient typewriters, machines for producing that intermediate stage of copy that passed from writer to editor.

The word processors we use today, or at least most of us, are fundamentally different, and they come from different ancestral stock.

All the word processors in common use today come from ideas thought up at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), which famously developed all the basic ideas that went into the Macintosh and Windows but utterly failed to turn those ideas into anything marketable.

While the rest of the world was just waking up to WordStar, the boffins at PARC had already imagined a world where what you saw on the screen was exactly what you would see on the printed page. And that page could look like anything you wanted. You could use different sizes, different type styles, pictures—any variation in formatting that was possible in a professional publication should be possible on a computer. All the intermediaries could be swept away. Just like old Walter Map, the writer could create exactly the page the reader would see.

Xerox didn’t make anything out of those ideas, but Apple did, and Microsoft took them up a few years later. Their victory has been complete. Everyone who works in the writing business uses software that incorporates those world-transforming ideas.

But they haven’t transformed the world—or at least, like most of us, they haven’t lived up to their potential.

If you work in a corporate office, you know what the most obvious effect of those ideas has been. Memos and schedules and other documents that used to be typed in dull gray text are now adorned with every trick of formatting, decoration, and color that can occur to the mind of a department supervisor.

None of these decorations make the documents more legible or beautiful. The intermediaries we cut out—the typesetters and designers—were the ones who knew how to do that. And no one is being educated to take their place. Schools still teach writing as a matter merely of arranging words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, with no acknowledgment that everyone who writes a memo needs to know some basic principles of design. That’s like teaching someone to drive a Hyundai and then handing him the keys to a jumbo jet. Of course there are going to be catastrophes if we do that.

The question becomes even more complicated when we admit to ourselves that the printed page probably won’t be the final destination of most writing in the future. It probably isn’t now. This article isn’t on paper, and the number of words written for the Web probably far exceeds the number written to be published on paper.

Here the revolution really is happening, with all the chaos that usually goes along with a revolution. Any schoolchild can design and publish a Web site, and millions of them have done it. But there’s not yet any body of conventional wisdom that says what kind of design is good or bad. Some Web sites—including some paid for by major corporations—are very badly designed; you know it and I know it, but by what standard?

What we have to do now is understand that we’re really back in the world of the medieval scribes, where writing was more than just coming up with words. We’re all going to have to care about how the words look, too, because in most of the things we write there’s no one else to look out for that aspect of the business anymore. And perhaps the care we take with how the words look might lead us to take a bit more care with the words themselves—almost like Walter Map, whoever he was.

One Response to “The Second Revolution”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Chaucer’s rotten scribe Says:

    [...] After I had finished writing about medieval writers and their intimacy with the words they wrote, I remembered I tiny poem by Chaucer that might seem to contradict me a bit. In a spirit of honesty, I reproduce it here (from Dr. Skeat’s edition): [...]

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey