The Grail Code 
The two revolutions (and me)

Last fall’s issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (which I’m just now getting around to reading) was devoted to the history of word processing, and it made me remember what interesting times I’ve lived through. Most people in the history of the world don’t get to live through one fundamental revolution, and here I’ve lived through two. I’m exceptionally blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it.

When I was growing up, writers wrote with typewriters. As I mentioned earlier, I was an early and enthusiastic partisan of computer word processors, but I was odd that way. You could write with a computer, but you’d better not let anyone know you hadn’t used a typewriter, or your tenth-grade Social Studies teacher would give you an automatic F even though he hadn’t mentioned anything about that rule when he gave you the assignment. (A note to all the young people out there: The people who tell you that you’ll remember your school days for the rest of your life are absolutely right.)

I’ve already talked about the revolution that happened when writers switched from pens to typewriters. But in at least one important way, writing with a typewriter is exactly like writing with a pen. Both the pen and the typewriter write in only one direction. You can go forwards, but not backwards. You might cross out what you’ve written, or you might crumple up the whole page and start over, but you can’t just not have written it.

Computers changed all that. Now you could just say, “I wish I hadn’t said that,” and the WordStar fairy granted your wish.

Something really big happened there, and I don’t think we appreciate yet just how big it was. It was almost like breaking through into the fourth dimension.

Since before the invention of writing, composition had always moved in one direction. Editing what you wrote was hard work, because you had to rewrite everything you wanted to change. Change, in other words, was costly.

With computers, though, change is free, or at least very cheap. If you didn’t like a word, or a sentence, or a paragraph, you could make it vanish instantly, and it was as if you’d never written it.

The word processors most of us use today can do the same thing, but in every other way they’re completely different. That’s why I say I’ve lived through two fundamental revolutions.

Some of you may remember those early word processors. You stared at green or amber words on a black screen. How they would look on paper was anybody’s guess.

Just as you can find writers who are nostalgic for the days of typewriters, so you can also find writers who are nostalgic for those early word processors, and for some surprisingly good reasons. A science-fiction writer I know told me he misses the intense concentration on the words themselves. You didn’t see different fonts; you didn’t see margins or page breaks; you didn’t see anything but the words you were writing, glowing in the darkness. That did, as my writer friend points out, force you to concentrate on the words, and maybe they were better words for it.

But those black-screen word processors had only about ten years to rule the world. Another revolution was coming—one that would take us right back to the time of Walter Map.

One Response to “The two revolutions (and me)”

  1. Doofus Says:

    Fascinating series. Thanks!

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey