A Little Preemptive Digital Archaeology

Asimov Type Faster

I may have odd digital writerly habits. For instance, the text you are reading right now was composed in the Windows 7 version of Notepad, the almost-totally-formatting-free, ASCII-based text editor. While I look at MSWord the way many people look at a sibling, whenever I compose for web-based reading I compose in Notepad. I’ve been poking around on writing on the internet since the early 1990s, and I still can’t beat the (apparently justified) feeling that someway, somehow, if I type this in Word and then copy-paste to the webpage, it will find a way to become ugly.

While reading Baron, I couldn’t help but notice he, and many of the writers he refers to, have similar strange or archaic digital habits. I might be born-digital-and-maladjusted, though, since I started writing not with a PC but with an already-outdated IBM Selectric III (see 79), had a plastic toy manual typewriter which jammed constantly, handwrote my first publishable stories, and continue to handwrite notes for classes in a leatherbound quarto notebook.

I also had intense brand loyalty to pens and certain pencils for creative writing, and kept and archived pens exhausted in my fiction-making, complete with the date of final drying-out and what project they served on. Until, at least, I moved on to just using MSWord.

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But, contrary to Baron’s example (51), am nearly as particular about my keyboard as I am my pens–I’ve disqualified laptop purchasing options on the closeness or space between their keys, and once had to mail order the last remaining of a specific model of keyboard from a forgotten office supply warehouse in Texas. And I still remember the feel of the slightly concave, chocolate-colored keys of the Selectric.

What this makes me thing about is how many of us bring archaic practices to digital writing, and how we might begin to separate the archaic from the necessary in order to see what it is that digital media are actually making us do. I’m sure, for instance, that avid science fiction writer and gonzo futurist Charles Stross could probably find a better way to distribute his copyleft drafts than as .rtf documents, and that I could find a better composing medium than a program which, in essence, imitates a console interface. Certain digital habits have mostly fallen by the wayside–like Baron’s “handwriting fonts” (66) and fiddling with different fonts in email and papers (83), both of which are now strangely nostalgic enterprises that usually indicate that someone is new to digital composition and just basking in the endless stylistic possibility. Meanwhile, other incredibly frustrating old practices remain–the insurance industry, for example, still depends on faxing, which elicits the following reaction from anyone new to that industry:

This is Alan Rickman flipping a table. Your eyes do not deceive you.
My boss learned quickly not to mention the faxosaurus by name.

Certainly, there are countless complex forces determining which (sometimes frankly unnecessary) things we often bring to digital composition from its predecessors–the lack of white background was, according to Baron, a major obstacle for the popularity of early word processing software (105)–but we have to wonder what sort of impact these alien-to-computers techniques and technae will have on the future of digital writing. How long will it be before nobody knows what the “save” icon means? How long before people stop seeing the computer as “a better pencil?” What weird writing customs and cultural practices are we going to leave them with because we hold on to things that look like paper?

–Michael
(because for all my technological savvy, I can’t get my wordpress username changed)

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7 thoughts on “A Little Preemptive Digital Archaeology”

  1. Michael,

    Your response made me laugh, as I just spent WAY longer than necessary copying, collating, and hole-punching four binders worth of paper (for those of you still in the WC, check out the snazzy new tutor binders on some of the desks!). I know that if I had taken the time to figure out how the copier worked, I could have just put all the sheets in there and it would have done everything for me. But somehow opting for the four-times-as-long-do-it-myself option just seemed easier.

    That said, I think there is a bit more than just a wariness of technology going on when people are unwilling to relinquish their archaic writing habits. I feel like writing is such a personal thing that when people find out what works for them, they are unwilling to try new things—regardless of what these things may be. For instance, I need small sheets of scrap paper to write notes on when I’m writing an essay. I know that having one larger sheet—or perhaps even a notebook of bound sheets—would make way more sense (and make my desk look like less of a gerbil cage), but I can’t seem to part with this ridiculous method.

    P.S. You change your name through clicking on your “profile” in the top right corner 🙂

  2. I love this post.

    I wonder, though, to take your point further, Heather, if in addition to a personal fear of change is a sense of the ways that media shifts rhetoric and genre. In a lot of ways, I think that form and content are inextricable from each other. Not to close read your personal life, but I think drafting on scraps of paper versus full sheets gives access to and limits certain kinds of behaviors–with scraps, you can easily rearrange, focus on specific moments as (literally) separate from the larger argument, etc. With full sheets, on the other hand, you are constantly forced to develop that larger structure–every specific moments is necessarily related back to the larger whole and cannot (without an eraser) be rearranged. These different capabilities and focuses, in turn, may yield different rhetorical effects–perhaps one draft is more sequential or episodic in style than the other. (Of course, this fails to account for your eventual revisions and having to ultimately put it together into one longer draft.)

    This kind of got away from me. My point is, I think, that the kind of hangings-on from previous writing technologies aren’t just formal qualities that we keep around to feel secure but also elements that shape what kind of texts we can create.

    1. You’re right–they aren’t just formal qualities or security blankets, they’re major cultural artifacts that we’ve carried with us into this weird digital place that shape how we get around digital writing. One day when we’re all gone, it’s weird to think about some history major who’s going to be going over all our digital writing technology and be like “why the heck are all these backgrounds white?” and “why didn’t they have their blogs scroll horizontally as well?” because that scholar will never have used the culturally-important pencil-and-paper tech that we read onto our new medium.

  3. A quick thought: could we say that we fetishize the artifacts of previous technologies? Nostalgia might be a good concept to help us begin to answer that question.

    1. I think you’re probably on to something. I mean, think of the app on most modern operating systems that lets you stick digital notes which look suspiciously like Post-It Notes on your “screen.” Like most archaic things, they make perfect sense to us (“I can use them to keep grocery lists, and I can put them on my laptop, which probably wouldn’t close properly if covered in sticky paper squares!”) but if you look at it in the context of the technology, it’s suddenly dumbfounding that making a note-taking application look like an office supply was a priority for somebody. Basically, we fetishized (or reified) the nostalgic appearance of the Post-It Note and therefore HAD to use it when we made its digital equivalent, even though no conditions of that digital environment mandated that form.

  4. Michael–I truly enjoyed this post, even if some of it was alien to me (being myself even more technologically-maladjusted than you admit to being).

    Chris, I also heartily agree with your point about the fetishization of past technologies–outdated is the new chic, after all! The visual rhetoric of using a piece of outdated technology, using something made to look like one, or wearing something featuring an image of one, is definitely a statement at present–though I’m still not entirely clear on what that statement is. One of the best recent instances I can think of is seeing an iPhone whose case was made to replicate an old Game Boy (I was initially very confused why its owner was staring so intently at the wrong side).

    Oh, and Heather, in case you are looking for typewriter-wear, look no further: http://www.modcloth.com/shop/search?keyword=typewriter

  5. Mike,

    What a great post and string of responses! (Says the person who put an image of steampunk keyboard at the top of this blog.) I agree with pretty much everything that has been said. People who care about writing tend to care about its tools, not only for how they help us shape our work, but for the pleasure they offer in their use. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’s famous put down of Bill Gates that he “had no style.”

    As for me, when I want to write something “important,” I tend to use a program called iA Writer, which more or less turns your laptop into a manual typewriter, with almost no choices to make about fonts, spacing, formatting, etc. Medium, the new writing platform designed by Ev Williams, has a similar stripped-down feel. There really does seem to be something freeing about thinking about the words rather than the page.

    Joe

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