Word Processing on the Osborne 1

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 by brandontruett

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.



3 comments on “Word Processing on the Osborne 1

  1. kylebickoff says:

    I’ve read online, that *supposedly* Juneteenth was originally written in the 1960s, the manuscript was burned and lost. But other accounts suggest maybe in never was destroyed?

    Regardless, it seems to me that if either of these stories are true, Juneteenth was either re-written with a previous version of the text in mind, or transcribed. To me, this doesn’t change the gravity of sitting down and writing this novel on an early portable computer. Rather, it speaks to the difficulty of how one might approach editing the original 2,000 page manuscript down to a few hundred page work. And on this small 5 inch screen. Wow.

    Glad you could really work a bit in this interface Brandon.

  2. contromal says:

    Brandon, you stole my next media experience! I will simply have to copy you for next time. Reading your post, I couldn’t help but wonder if you remember the almost confrontationally (my iPad tells me that’s not a word) helpful question mark helper on older versions of Microsoft Word. I remember being extremely frustrated with that little cartoon, because he SAID he was going to help me, but often could not. He exemplified this weird tension you and I are running into between user and friendly.

  3. Lori Emerson says:

    That annoying character in early versions of word was Clippy! I think that probably one of the reasons Clippy failed so miserably was that it drew attention to the software rather than finding more insidious ways to disappear and control the software for you. Here’s Matthew Fuller’s essay on MS Word I keep mentioning in class – an early version of the later essay that’s published in Behind the Blip: http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0009/msg00040.html Anyways, Brandon your post demonstrates *exactly* the kind of work I hoped students in our class would undertake in the lab and in relation to the media archaeology writing we’re reading. Such a thrill to read about your struggles and revelations about the fiction of “seamlessness” and the “user-friendly”. The thing I struggle with is how the creator of the Osborne was also the creator of one of the earliest forms of an internet called Community Memory, set up in Berkeley and meant to give people free and unsurveilled access to information. Yet the introduction of the user-friendly with the Osborne really seems to be at odds with the 60s/counterculture-inspired creation of Community Memory. Probably, and sadly, the Osborne is just an early example of how the computing industry cleverly appropriated the exact same terms of the counterculture for profit…

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