Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

By Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016. 368 pp. $29.95 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-674-41707-6.

Where literary histories once explored material aspects of composition, they must now also take histories of word processing into account; the development of computers, software, and the relationship and peculiarities of both to the author as well as the influence of both on the production of imaginative works. Kirschenbaum's Track Changes is a catalogue of partnerships between authors and machines in the early word processing era. The book is also an attempt to answer what changes to literature such partnerships have wrought, what essentials have remained the same, and what paths such investigations may take in the future.

Track Changes is a fascinating collection of exciting examples that researchers interested in the habits of literary creation, in literary biographies, and in the post-publication life of manuscriptswill find innumerable benefits in these pages, along with avenues for future exploration. Throughout these examples we also find discussions of metaphysical questions raised by a new technology. One antecedent provides a metaphor for the book's overarching interests and concerns—that of William Blake. Besides the “dark Satanic mills” of the prophetic Milton, we are less apt to recall that Blake himself, that consummate individualist, was a user of the machine. His own prints were made by turning the wheel of a press located in Blake's own home. Instead of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, though, the printing press enabled authors like Blake to more fully express their individuality, freeing him from the influence of commercial printers. This dichotomy of machines both liberating and flattening individuality is a recurring one in this book; throughout Kirschenbaum provides examples and counterexamples for the many questions raised by technological change. “The one inescapable conclusion is that our instruments of composition, be they a Remington or a Macintosh, all serve to focalize and amplify our imagination of what writing is” (23).

Kirschenbaum begins Track Changes with an account of Charles Babbage, inventor of the earliest computers, and his interest in automating the mechanism of poetic invention only a few short years after Blake's death. His second chapter, aptly titled “Perfect,” exemplifies word processing's unique transformation of our perception of authorial works and the composition thereof. The adjective “perfect” is far more than advertising jargon (or, if originally derived from sloganeering, it, as a concept, has come to shape our vision of creative work). John Updike, for instance, in using a word processor, expects to less often use the services of typists, because of the expectation that the first physical draft will be without commonplace errors. Isaac Asimov, meanwhile, in exploring using a computer in his work, wonders if the ability to correct will alter his traditional workflow, wherein a hastily typewritten, uncorrected final copy, is given over to correction by an editor.

The word processor has changed our view of the physical identity of the written work. Years of written work is now infinitely reproducible, but can be deleted with a keystroke just as quickly. The new materiality of the digital medium—the word processed text—masks its own physicality; we imagine the digital to be non-physical, ideal. The contingencies of creation: paper, pencil, pen, ribbons, and collection fluid, all disappear. Though the computer itself is an object, through this technology the text itself seemingly enters the realm of ideas, becoming “perfect.” Yet, contemporary periodicals discussing the technical specifications of early computers remind us this is an illusion. The chapters “Reveal Codes” and “Think Tape” in particular discuss the different physical shapes texts now take, shapes masked by levels of scale and the veneer of the interface (see “Typing on Glass”). Go deeper, and the arrangement of electricity, processors, and code reminds us that the computer is really no more ideal than the paper page or tablet.

Certainly the form of literature has already been shaped by this new technology. The paperback bestseller was inevitable even without the word processor. However, American science fiction author Jerry Pournelle, one of the first to make the switch to the computer, observes that word processing, the ability to make constant and unlimited corrections, has led to ubiquitous “overwriting” (188). Style, the expression of individuality, is being shaped by the machine. Or, we might say ideal style, previously hampered by contingency, can now be more easily be discovered. Generally, Track Changes is an account of the historical record of word processing that led to new kinds of writing cultures; as an argument about an information technology, it is a collection of interesting possibilities for further study rather than any definitive pronouncements. For example, the case of Nietsche's writing ball, a sort of proto-typewriter. Kirschenbaum notes how some argue that use of the device influenced his aphoristic style, a suspicion that others would argue against because Nietzsche’s heroes Schopenhauer and Rochefoucauld were masters of the aphoristic form. The introduction of technology does not simplify but expands and enriches discussions of literary studies and of literary genealogy. Indeed, any of Kirschenbaum's examples could one day fill book-length investigations. For now, overreaching theories of composition relating to word processing remain suggestive. Certainly, as archives fill with digital manuscripts, new wordprocessing formats, even computing machines, studies of growing complexity taking literary, biographical, and other traditional concerns, as well as the unique histories of word processors into consideration will burgeon.

Reviewed by Peter Ward