‘Track Changes’: History Written on Glass

A dense, scholarly history of machine-made literary magic: effortless revisions, swappable files, perfect printouts, and what authors did with them.

Virtually every new technology is a product of human ingenuity, designed to expand human capabilities and ease labor. Many, perhaps most, new technologies represent only incremental advances in the state of the art, but word processing was disruptive — even revolutionary. It was, as poet Andrei Codrescu would put it later, like writing with light on glass, “both godlike and ephemeral” (p. 45). The word “magic” appears often in early adopters’ descriptions of it, and considering the nearly 2,000-year-old alternative, ink on paper, it’s not hard to understand why.

Words written in ink on paper are fixed, permanently and irrevocably, from the moment we write them. The paper itself can be burnt, soaked, or shredded into uselessness, but until it is the words on it remain stable. Changes do not obliterate the original text, but overwrite it like graffiti scrawled on a painting. Beneath them, the original remains, tauntingly intact.

The instant permanence of ink on paper enables the long-distance transmission and long-term storage of complex information, and provides a basis for trust between individuals too distant to meet (and thus know) one another personally. It’s invaluable to bureaucrats, businessmen, and bankers — the users whose professional needs ink-and-paper records were developed to meet — but for those creating written documents, however, the instant permanence of ink on paper is more curse than blessing.

Permanence meant that errors, too, were irrevocable. Fixing them required marring the finished document with written-in corrections or (in the typewriter era) with clumsy solutions like correction tape and white-out fluid. The alternative — the only alternative for a document intended to travel beyond the office in which it was created — was to retype the page from scratch. Novelists, screenwriters, and others for whom multiple rounds of elaborate revisions were a way of life, faced a parallel problem. Too many revisions on a single page rendered it unclear, if not entirely unreadable, necessitating the recopying (or retyping) of a “clean copy”; trivial for a single page, but daunting when multiplied by hundreds of pages and multiple drafts.

Word processors — tools that made it possible to digitally manipulate text on a screen — allowed writers to have a f “permanence” when, but only when, they wanted it. The text that hovered before their eyes remained completely fluid, infinitely malleable, and open to changes large or small. Adding or deleting a word was a matter of a few keystrokes. Moving entire paragraphs, and centering titles became trivially easy. Squeezing mistakenly omitted words into a paragraph without pushing it onto a new page (and other writerly black arts) became as obsolete as the buggy whip. In word processing there were no fixed pages until the writer invoked permanence with the two-word incantation: Save. Print.

The word processing revolution was both conceptual and technological. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes, a richly detailed study of the revolution and the authors who embraced it during its earliest stages, attends to both sides with equal care. Kirschenbaum describes the bewildering variety of systems — from programs designed to run on shared mainframe computers, to dedicated single-purpose word processors like the Wangwriter II, to word-processing software packages like WordStar and MacWrite, designed for early personal computers — that made word processing possible. He gives equal attention, however, to the ways in which (and the reasons why) individual authors embraced the new technology, how it affected their day-to-day routine of writing, and how (more elusively) it shaped the words on the page.

The surfaces of both stories are deceptively simple: All word-processing tools have basically the same capabilities, and all the authors described in the book seem to have found them valuable — even delightful. Beneath those surfaces, however, lie deep wells of complexity. Before Corel’s WordPerfect emerged as the de facto industry standard in the mid-’80s, a stunning diversity of software packages and hardware-software combinations were available to users interested in word processing. The users who chose from among those diverse options ranged from secretaries and office managers through writers as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke, Len Deighton, Stephen King, John Updike, and John McPhee. Given that (almost) every writer profiled here seems to have used a different system, the number of individual cases to be covered is dizzying.

Track Changes excels in capturing this diversity. Its in-depth portraits of individual writers’ early interactions with word processing cover an extraordinary level of detail: what equipment they chose, why they chose it, and how their choices affected not only their own work but their relationships with staff, collaborators, publishers, and those they turned to (formally or informally) for technical support. The information that makes up the portraits is gleaned primarily from period interviews and magazine profiles, but also from correspondence, advertisements, book forewords, and other unlikely sources. We glibly talk about “early adopters” of new technologies as if they were a monolithic group. Track Changes, by depicting a particular set of them in remarkable depth and detail, shows how much more complex (and interesting) the truth is.

The ’70s and early ’80s were to word-processing systems what the 15 years prior to World War I were to aircraft: a period of wild experimentation, filled with strangely configured machines that seemed promising at the time, but are long since forgotten. Track Changes captures that diversity as well, and references to long-obsolete systems (gone from the memories of everyone but one-time users and computer historians) stud the pages. Kirschenbaum is, he makes clear in the introduction, not writing a technological history of early word-processing systems. Indeed, the book’s deliberately non-chronological organization subverts any attempt by the reader to impose a “march of technological progress” narrative on it. Thanks to his comprehensiveness, however, Track Changes is a useful placeholder for a yet-to-be-written technological history of word processing and a valuable resource for those deeply interested in it.

Writing for a core audience of fellow scholars (who can reasonably be assumed to know the history, already), Kirschenbaum omits much of the social, literary, and technological context that would have made Track Changes more broadly accessible. He tacitly assumes, for example, that the reader needs only the barest reminder of why the Apple IIe or the Altair 8800 was a milestone in the history of personal computers. He discusses all-but-extinct devices like impact printers, floppy disks, teletype machines, and the IBM Selectric typewriter as if they were still familiar, despite the fact that a substantial (and ever-growing) section of the reading audience has never seen, let alone used them in their “natural habitat”. The reversed (and then slightly scrambled) chronological organization of the book is comprehensible, despite itself, to readers familiar with the early history of personal-computer technology, but likely to baffle those who are not.

All of these elisions are legitimate choices, given the audience that Kirschenbaum is writing for, but they set the book apart from the more deliberately popular work of writers like Stephen Levy, Kevin Kelly, and Stephen Johnson. Anyone with a college diploma in their desk drawer and technology on their mind can read Track Changes and follow its argument. It’s aimed, however, at the much smaller group who read the cover copy and exclaim: “Yes! It’s about damn time somebody wrote a book like this!”

RATING 7 / 10