Reverting to type

Elizabet Helsing and husband Graham Dukes appear to be typing a letter..

It was several decades ago that we first ran into the concept of processing.  At that time it was applied to cheese; processed cheese looked like soap and tasted much the same. Later on they processed foods in general,  textiles and goodness knows what else; “processing” seemed to be a term for any sort of industrialized Kafkaesque routine intended to make things different, be it for better or for worse. It all culminated in the eighties with Word Processing, which promised relief from the drudgery of hammering on a typewriter and fiddling with carbon paper, stencils and erasing fluid. Hurrah, said we.  Poor we.

Our Wang “portable” word processor of 1984 was in fact not so much portable as transportable; it demanded a good solid porter’s trolley to move it around.  The QWERTY keyboard was supplemented by 48 Function Keys (SKIP!  STEP! DIM!). This was all a little bewildering to anyone expecting merely a bigger and cleverer typewriter, but somehow enchantingly novel. One could indeed type on the thing, and then transpose the sickly green luminous text appearing on the screen onto indescribably unpleasant thermopaper, that turned black when the sun shone; above all, one could correct a fault without our retyping a whole page. It could also check our spelling – at first one letter at a time, then a word, and later a whole page; but there it had its limitations, routinely declaring that our esteemed colleague Sally was in fact merely Silly and on one occasion that our academic reference to categories should obviously have been to cat orgies.

So it was In The Beginning.  But progress is unstoppable.  WordStar swept away the 48 function keys but promptly replaced them with fearsome codes (“To move a word, insert ^KB in front of it and ^KK after it, then place the cursor at the point to which it is to be moved and insert ^KV”.) Other programs followed but as they did so, some worrisome trends emerged. In particular, machines surely intended to obey us began to move subtly into the business of advising us (“Can we help…?”), questioning our judgment (“Do you really mean…?”), pestering us with stupid questions (“Do you wish to turn off Sticky Keys?”) , managing us (“Please do not…”), offering thin excuses for refusing to help us (“the ActiveX control ouactrl.ocx didn’t install correctly”)  and when necessary rebuking us outright (“You cannot do this without permission of your administrator.”).  Hang it, each of us said to ourselves, this is MY machine, I paid for it and I AM the administrator.

Today, these programs are so convinced of their superiority that their messages can be downright condescending (“The feature you are trying to run has a plug-in to correct known issues”).  In addition, they have developed a language of their own, apparently designed in some alien world.  (“You should install the EPS parser plug-in”; “Do you wish to disable all Tabs or just this one?”  “Add a Tag!”). If you get mixed up between Tags and Tabs you are obviously too stupid to be entrusted with today’s word processing at all. All the time, the system is urging us to ask questions that would otherwise never have occurred to us (“Why is my add-in crashing?”)  or instructing us to engage in unexpected acts (“Customize the ribbon!”  “Format painter!”  “Insert Blog Post!”  “Connect using different credentials!”)  What sort of credentials?  Diplomatic?  Professional ?  Religious? At this point we may consider recourse to the Trust Centre, a mystery that still lurks somewhere in the background.  Clearly, the books about Computer Use for Dummies have been taken all too seriously by the programmers, who are now convinced of the need to push, pull and bully us, and on occasion to try out their puerile humour on us, as we are all daft and helpless.  We ourselves are therefore quite simply being processed, like the original soapy cheese of our youth; and remember what happened to that.

Things can only get worse. For some years there was an obnoxious, grinning little paper-clip figure, dancing in the corner of the screen and telling us what to do.  They suppressed him, but what if they start squeaking the same messages at us through the loudspeaker? What if they begin to meddle with our texts without even asking us? And if we ignore their admonitions, shall we be duly chastised by means of appropriate  electric shocks, administered through the mouse, or (in the worst case) through various keys at random?

They must not press us too far.  One of us is already consorting again with Word Perfect (which has never been quite Perfect but which is kindly and obedient). And one day, hopefully before word user processing drives us quite out of our wits, we may even turn back in relief to the sturdy, compliant old Remington typewriter that has sat on the top of the cupboard for the last three decades.  We oil it now and again, just in case.


Elisabet Helsing (-Dukes) and Graham Dukes have been word processing on public health issues across their workroom (and across much of the world) for 28 years.

Photo: Remington Portable typwriter, #2 model by Georg Sommeregger (Wikimedia Commons)

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