Book History, Media Archaeology, Media Theory, Science Fiction, Popular Fiction, Computation, History of Technology, Media Studies, Digital Humanities, Textual Scholarship
Imagine a written language consisting entirely of graphical inscriptions, or semagrams, with no spoken counterpart. Imagine that “sentences” can be composed by joining semagrams together in intricate, mandala-like configurations, and that the process of conveying a complex thought in this writing system involves drawing individual lines that participate in multiple clauses of a sentence at once. So, for instance, if I wanted to tell you that my home planet has two moons, one larger than the other, that its atmosphere consists of nitrogen, argon, and oxygen, and that almost half of its surface is covered by liquid water, [End Page 104] I would draw a single stroke that began with the semagram for oxygen, then “slid down to become the morpheme of comparison in the description of the two moons’ sizes; and lastly . . . flared out as the arched backbone of the semagram for ocean” (123).1 To do so in a single, continuous line, I’d have to know in advance what I was going to say and precisely how I was going to say it. The moment I put pen to paper, I would have to hold the entire thought in mind, in all of its branching complexity.
As the protagonist of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” learns to write in this extraterrestrial, semagraphic language, she finds that the very structure of her thinking begins to reflect its new means of expression:
my thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane. As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully-formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once.(127)
Some of the most striking moments in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (and there are many) emerge around similar feelings of estrangement between writers and their means of expression as they leave pens and typewriters behind for the strange new world of word processing: what a writer must hold in mind while firing lines of phosphorescent prose across a glass screen, what new patterns emerge from texts that now can be saved, printed, and revised at will. The operator of an IBM MT/ST data entry machine learns “to navigate the [magnetic] tape not only by sight and by touch, but also by sound, using aural cues to know . . . when a reference code had been set successfully” (177). A poet laments the speed of word processing software, which “doesn’t take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body” (160). A novelist imagines himself to be “in exactly the same position as an Egyptian scribe who had spent his life carving inscriptions on granite—and suddenly discovered ink and papyrus” (67).
But for all that is alien about word processors, they became familiar, even mundane, rather quickly. This is true not only historically—Kirschenbaum writes that “[i]n 1978 or 1979, writers using a word processor or a personal computer were part of the vanguard. By 1983 or 1984 they were merely part of the zeitgeist” (xv)—but on the level of a writer’s individual habits as well. Kirschenbaum’s subjects, who include best-selling juggernauts and celebrated literary titans as well as data entry clerks and the deep cuts of 1970s genre fiction, find themselves adapting almost overnight to the new forms of composition at their disposal. Isaac Asimov recalls, “A night had passed—an ordinary night—but during it something in my brain must finally have rearranged itself. Now, there I was, running the machine like an old hand” (57). The vast majority of writing, Kirschenbaum reminds us, is mundane: a cluster of habits, routines, and tacit [End Page 105] knowledge we have for getting words on the page. In adopting...