After learning that Ralph Ellison wrote Juneteenth on the Osborne 1, I had to try it for myself with the hope of approximating the experience of digitally word processing in the early 80s. First and foremost, it took me about ten minutes to turn on the machine. Full disclosure: I ultimately failed and had to ask Kyle for help. After powering on the machine, I inserted a very thin and large disk that contained the WordArt program. Waiting for the machine to boot the program, I pulled out the huge user’s guide, and was confronted with its notion of “user-friendly”; it reassured me of the ease with which I would write my first document. Wrong. I couldn’t even figure out how to begin typing. I eventually learned how to create a new document, which was not as intuitive as the user’s guide led me to believe. Once I started typing, I hit another roadblock: figuring out how to delete characters. The manual encouraged me to pull out the reference guide, which contained a variety of commands that the user must enter, for instance, to delete one character. I started to realize the extent to which I rely on a homogenized, sleek interface à la Microsoft Word that nicely lays out every command and which are available at the click of the cursor. The Osborne 1 certainly lacks the seamlessness to which I have become accustomed. I was constantly aware of the black space and the various shades of green that constituted my digital writing. I tried to imagine the possibility of Ellison losing himself in the act of writing and forgetting the screen and focusing instead on the abstract words as they formed in his mind. But, perhaps, he handwrote a draft and then simply transcribed the draft into the WordArt program on Osborne 1.
At any rate, this is pure speculation. What is interesting is how my media-archaeological method of booting up a retro word-processing program forced me to reflect on the effect that Microsoft Word has on me today as a writer. Using the Osborne 1, I felt more connected to the machine, to its hardware than when writing on my MacBook Pro. I had to understand the machine on its own terms rather than it trying to assist me, as Microsoft Word routinely does. Moreover, I began to think if it’s possible to trace how the “user-friendly” ideology has been employed historically. I was surprised that the Osborne 1’s manual recited to its user the same party line that we receive from Apple in 2014. Like Renée, I find “user-friendly” to be a slippery term that carries more weight with respect to persuading the user rather than veritably reporting the experience of computing.
N.B. The enclosed picture depicts what I typed in the WordArt program. I attempted to write my blog post, but ultimately wanted to finish the post on Microsoft Word.