A Media-Archaeological Approach to Word Processing and the User-Friendly

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by brandontruett

My experiences in the MAL have coalesced around two central concepts: the user-friendly and word processing. I have become fascinated by the way we inscribe/input writing into a machine, thereby becoming a user who is often thwarted by the unwieldy operations of the machine. Indeed, Matthew Kirschenbaum, who is completing a project on the literary history of word processing, reminds us of the infamous incident publicized by the New York Times wherein President Jimmy Carter lost several pages of his memoir that he had been word-processing on a Lanier computer in the early 1980s. Even though each machine’s manual is saturated with the ideology of the user-friendly, across the various machines I’ve used in the MAL, I never experienced a seamless interface; such simply doesn’t exist. In my project, I will interrogate the differences and discontinuities of word processing on the range of three machines: the Xerox 6010 Memorywriter, the Osborne 1 using WordArt (also used by Ralph Ellison to write Juneteenth), and the Commodore 64 using HES Writer. (Note: I am also entertaining the idea of proceeding reverse chronologically, from the user-friendly GUI to the electronic typewriter, in order to explore a non-linear approach.) Learning from prominent media theorists as Friedrich Kittler (e.g. “media determine our situation”) and Siegfried Zielinski (e.g. variantology) as well as Michel Foucault’s concept of archaeology, I will implement a practice-based approach to my critique of the user-friendly and its relationship to word processing. I hope to theorize the relationship we have with our word processors; indeed, if what Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed is true––that “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts”––how does writing on different machines change how we think about what we write, and moreover, why does each manual attempt to bridge the chasm between machine and human, producing the latter as at once subject and user? As an experimental method, to ensure that both the hardware and the software inflect my theorization, I will perform my writing through two media: typewritten paper and digital word processing, reflecting on the idiosyncratic problems that each pose to the user as he or she shifts from analog input to using a GUI interface; in other words, when speaking of the Osborne 1, I will write using the machine with its software, WordArt. My methodology is influenced by Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of “variantology,” whereby one discovers “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, to borrow from Lori Emerson’s implementation. With this method, I hope to debunk and to undermine the story of casual, linear progress that we tell ourselves about our machine history and that which cleanly narrativizes the transition from, say, fountain pen to typewriter to electronic typewriter and reaching a telos with the digital word processor on the computer. I am not exactly certain about either the outcome or the degree to which I will succeed, but I am excited to see where this media-archaeological method takes me. I of course would love to hear from any of you about my proposal, whether you have comments, critiques, or just outright problems that you see I might face. I am sure that my project will change as I get going.

In the meantime, see the image below for the provisional launch of my project with the Memorywriter:



3 comments on “A Media-Archaeological Approach to Word Processing and the User-Friendly

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Brandon, hopefully our conversation last night helped to narrow the scope of your project and clarified some things for you – what you’ve written here sounds, of course, fascinating! But could easily be extended into something like a book-length project. I’m glad you’re focusing just on the delete key/function as the place where interface design, software, and hardware intersect to either promote an ideology of the user-friendly or undermine it or unsettle it somehow.

  2. Brandon, your project sounds super cool! I’m especially interested in your comment that we may have to cede a part of our humanity to gain user-friendly. I know, with my own project, that I am having trouble conceptualizing man without agency. Do we concede all agency to the tool? Surely not. You say that no GUI is truly seamless, but that transparency might allow user-friendly to strengthen the relationship between the user and the machine. These ideas seem like they might work against each other. I wouldn’t think that a thing need be either transparent or not to strengthen that relationshiop. I need to think about it some more. Looking forward to reading your final project!

  3. dparker90 says:

    This sounds like a great project, and I especially love your choice of the Osbourne 1. If I recall correctly, didn’t the company eventually go out of business because of poor sales that were attributed to the Osbourne’s tiny screen and bulky size? Maybe that supports your hypothesis about bridging the gap between humans and machines via the user friendly. In other words, maybe the Osbourne 1 failed precisely because it lacked that seamless user-friendly quality and constantly drew attention to itself as machine. Perhaps what succeeds and fails with consumers can tell us much about what we value in our technology market. Maybe a way to read what would otherwise be considered dead ends?

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