The Evolution of Electric TextBy
Yale computer scientist David Gelernter is noted for his books, like Machine Beauty and Mirror Worlds, as well as for the infamous letter bomb addressed to him by the Unabomber, which almost killed him and left him with permanent disabilities in 1993. Time magazine called him an “arch genius” in 2016 for his writings in both the arts and computer science.
Gelernter posits writing as civilization’s most important technology—one that has undergone substantial changes in the last 50 years. The written word, he explains, previously existed in only two states: on paper (or some similar medium) and in the mind. But now there are three essential word-states: written, mental, and electric, which is “suspended like tomatoes in aspic in the electronic cybergel that surrounds us.”
Electronic text, Gelernter says, exists in a state halfway between print and thought. The words can be printed and converted to an unchanging state, or they can remain undisturbed and invisible as “electronic information stored in terms of voltage levels, which, strictly speaking, look like nothing.”
And it differs in more than just appearance. Printed text is a stable, unchanged record, sitting on a shelf. Electronic text can be duplicated endlessly, easily edited, erased with the tap of a delete key, or sent around the world in microseconds. Print is linear, sequential, and two-dimensional, and that’s how we experience it. Electronic text can be three-dimensional with active hypertext references that open into a hyperspace created by external networks.
The American philosopher Michael Heim points out that writing is no longer just about producing printed text. The very definition of writing, he says, is about to change. And the effects are already apparent. You can see the changes when you read. “Reading—as most people read today,” says Heim, “falls under active browsing rather than under the traditional reading that follows an extended linear sequence of text.” Hyperlinks now interrupt the line, disturbing our attention with links to works and images outside the line we are reading.
In just a few decades, we have upended the ancient two-dimensional printed lines, replacing much of what we read with three-dimensional electric text that has no problem coexisting simultaneously in numerous places and states.
WORD PROCESSING—THE ICONS
The revolution is traceable back to two key inventions in the early 1970s—the personal computer and one of its first killer apps, word processing.
You might not recall the early attempts like the word processor Bank Street Writer, but more likely you’re familiar with WordStar, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Word. The three giants took turns controlling the writing sector of personal computing. The most interesting, as a program, was WordStar. Tech commentator John C. Dvorak called WordStar “perhaps one of the greatest single software efforts in the history of computing.” The program was written by one coder, Rob Barnaby, whom his partner called “the mad genius of assembly language coding.” Barnaby wrote the first WordStar, all 137,000 lines, in four months.
All three word processing giants took turns at the top, and all contributed to the flood of electric text that has taken over civilization’s discourse in the 21st Century.
AGE OF APPS
As they got to the top, all three of the word processing icons gave in to the same temptation to spread out. It’s called “creeping featuritis,” and it produces bloated software, laden with sidebars and submenus that clog the work page with distracting formatting paths, all leading away from what you’re supposed to be doing—writing.
Now in an age when tablets can make a credible case as your “work computer,” a number of writing apps clear the desk and deal with electronic text in a much more agile way and at a fraction of the cost of the traditional word processors.
This column was written with an app called Ulysses (www.ulyssesapp.com). Developed by a small German software team, the app won an Apple Design Award in 2016. It runs on Macs ($45), iPads ($25), and iPhones. The design is as elegant as Word is cluttered, with clean worksheets; a simple, all-in-one-place file directory; and formatting that doesn’t poke you in the eye. A single tap lets you save and export your work as a DOCX, plain text, HTML, ePub, or PDF, or you can publish directly to WordPress.
The text that usually appears below the Ulysses butterfly logo offers an idea of the developer’s view of electric text. It simply reads: “Write. Anything. Anywhere.”
With the increasing popularity of tablets and 2-in-1 laptops, a growing share of word processing is moving in the direction of smaller apps, like Ulysses and Scrivener, away from the larger software suites. This could add another stylistic change to our evolving electronic texts, perhaps encouraging fewer decorations and hypertext distractions.