Word Processing and the User-Friendly

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by brandontruett

Anticipating a possible topic for my final project, this week I experimented with more word processors in the MAL. I had used WordArt on the Osborne and fiddled around with the clunky typewriters, and here I am going to discuss my experience with HES Writer, which I operated on the Commodore 64 (1982).

The HES Writer software comes on a cartridge, which one must insert into the side of the large keyboard/machine that is the Commodore 64. It seemed odd to me that the Commodore, which I had thought was used primarily for gaming, would accommodate a word processor; however, after reading the manual of HES Writer, I came to realize that the program could even print from the machine. Indeed, the packaging of the HES Writer repeatedly reminded the user of its novelty and cutting-edge functionality—that “you can write simple notes, letters, even manuscripts” with the program. The HES Writer boasted of the magical “word wrap-around” feature that we now view as quite trivial. Like my experience using the Osborne, I was frustrated with the convoluted labyrinth of commands that one must enter in order to edit the document; one must remember the line numbers to which to return and edit the mistyped words. As you can see in the pictures below, the interface, due to its color scheme which you can alter to your desired colors, resonates with gaming. Also, in the second picture, you can see how the screen fills up with text after typing a short paragraph.

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Lori informed me of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work-in-progress, entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, which is under contract with Harvard University Press. I was fascinated by the New York Times coverage of Kirschenbaum’s project that fixated on his search to proclaim the first literary novelist to use a word processor on a computer. From the short article, I realized that Kirschenbaum’s book will likely employ media-archaeological methods, such as unearthing a Wang System 5 similar to that which Stephen King used when he wrote his short story “Word Processor of the Gods.”

After reading about Kirschenbaum’s project, I wonder if studying the connection between the ideological user-friendly and word processing software might illuminate a history of humans to unite themselves amicably with their machines. Again, similar to my experience with WordArt on the Osborne, the HES Writer’s manual instructs the user in such a way that one feels as if he or she is being taught how to write anew—that somehow writing before computers has become obsolete. When introducing the user to the editing feature of the program, the manual thus instructs, “[t]he above paragraph must be entered starting with text line 1” and continues to direct the user in laborious detail how to delete, move, and add characters as well as maneuver the cursor. And the manual ends with a “Problems” section for the inevitable moment when the glossy veneer of the ideological user-friendly becomes blemished, and one cannot remember anything about the content that he or she has attempted to word-process onto the machine. I am interested in continuing to analyze the manuals of word-processing software while comparing them to the human’s affective relationship to the machine—to what extent does the user-friendly attempt to mitigate the fact that, as Nietzsche observed, “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts?”

Work Cited

Schuessler, Jennifer. “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute.” New York Times. 25 December 2011. Web.

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