Living With a Computer

Reading old articles, in which a journalist enthuses about a technology that is now obsolete, is always fun. Reading Jim Fallows, writing in 1982, describe what it is like Living With a Computer is no exception (via Daily Dish). There is plenty of discussion of how much memory to fork out for, and whether to buy a tape or floppy drive.

The system prints about thirty characters per second, which means it takes less than a minute per double-spaced page. When it has completed its work, I take the manuscript and start working it over with a pencil, just as I did in days of old. The difference is that after I’ve made my changes, I have only to type in the changes I have made and start the printer up again—rather than retype the whole mess.

This passage is echoed in an article by Umberto Eco, discussing how the process of drafting has changed with the advent of computers. Before, writers would compose one discrete draft after another until the thing was complete. Jim Fallows was following this same process in 1982. In these cases, the earlier drafts were actually on paper and might not be thrown away, leaving a resource for the author and researchers if required. Eco points out that these days, there are an indeterminate number of drafts and sub-drafts – “ghost drafts” he calls them – which are lost to the world.

It could be the case, though rare, that the author – narcissistic and fanatical about his own changes, and using some kind of special computer program – has kept somewhere, inside the memory of the machine, all these intermediate changes. But usually this does not happen. Those “ghost” copies have vanished; they are erased as soon as the work is finished.
And so the work of the philologists of the future will be based on conjecture, on what those “ghost” copies might have contained – and who knows how many great texts and other erudite publications will be born from that conjecture? To outsiders, they might seem like problems suited only for college exams. But the discussion shows that the use of mechanical systems for writing doesn’t necessarily simplify and thereby mechanise the creative activity, but rather can make it that much more shaded and complex.

Whenever I’m working on something creative, I do periodically make a copy of the document, especially when I’ve decided to purge a few paragraphs of verbosity. I don’t think this is particularly narcissistic, as Eco has it. It is just an insurance against changing your mind. Those thoughts that don’t make the cut might be useful for something else, later.

Update, 27th August

Matthew Kirschenbaum expands on this theme in The Chronicle Review.

What if we could use machine-learning algorithms to sift through vast textual archives and draw our attention to a portion of a manuscript manifesting an especially rich and unusual pattern of activity, the multiple layers of revision captured in different versions of the file creating a three-dimensional portrait of the writing process? What if these revisions could in turn be correlated with the content of a Web site that someone in the author’s MySpace network had blogged?

4 Replies to “Living With a Computer”

  1. But we now live in a time when a 300GB external drive costs peanuts – probably more capacity than the US dept of Defence, IRS et al had at their disposal collectively in 1982.
    Indeed, the problem is now worse: philologists will have trawl through ALL the sh*te that you and I produce. quite frankly that’s not really fair on the poor dears is it…

  2. There will be no need to sift through much more stuff, because though data storage is cheap, history will still appoint very few worthy of such close analysis.
    More relevant for most folk, perhaps, are not the “ghost copies” of items on our hard drives, but the data trails we leave on the servers around the world. These ghosts of our identities are out there, available for stealing, and that’s what most of us have to offer that might be worth something, at least to a crook.
    This was a really nice post, Rob. I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

  3. You could keep all of those drafts without the need to deliberately save copies or use up lots of permanent storage.
    For writing software we use source control repositories that we periodically update with the latest version of the (hopefully working) code. The repository just stores the deltas between the copies which minimises the storage space used. It means the system can show you the state of play at any time in the project’s lifecycle.
    This is really easy to apply to any document. I use it for all my company documents, for instance, books, invoices and the likes. I use Subversion.

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