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Thursday
Jan202011

Between Shakespeare and Richard Brodie

Originally published in The New Yinzer, Summer 2009

I. I AM SPEAKING LOUDLY.

I hold down the shift key briefly to capitalize the first letter of this sentence: I. A slight stretch of my pinky, and there it goes again: A. The shift key, as light as the other plastic keys on my slim laptop, glows with a certain irony. On typewriters, the shift key is heavy, a heft for our pinkies, it physically ‘shifts’ the typebar to make a different impression on the ribbon: A, a. The caps lock literally ‘locks’ the typebars into place, a physical manifestation: I AM SPEAKING LOUDLY. My caps lock key glows, a green dot.

II. Word Processing

I change the font, cut and paste, watch my word count at the bottom of the screen: 135. While editing this paragraph, I have changed the word count seven times.

As the typewriter did to Nietzsche, to Mark Twain, and certainly to e.e. cummings (no shift key there), so Microsoft Word challenges contemporary writers. The typewriter catapulted communication and typesetting into the public mind: the computer has reduced it, made it seamless. The typewriter transcribes. The computer mediates language. For instance, at the beginning of this paragraph, I hesitated while typing the name of that famous German philosopher – Nietszche. No, Microsoft Word reminds me, Nietzsche. My sixth grade language arts instructor likened spelling to thinking, and, though I was skeptical about her theory at the time, I know see her point.

The computer, however, is not the origin of my misgivings. The puzzle here is in “word processing.” In 2002, I edited my college literary magazine. While reviewing submissions, I began to notice that many of the submitted poems’ beginning lines were capitalized. This capitalization was not, I assure you, the product of stretched pinkies: automatic first-line capitalization is a default setting of Microsoft Word. Once upon a time, capitalized lines signified meter in a blank verse poem, but somewhere between Shakespeare and Richard Brodie, this convention was lost.

Unlike the word processor, the typewriter forced writers to grapple with the placing and typesetting of their words. The typewritten ‘tab’ changed modern poetry. The available punctuation produced experiments like the “grasshopper” poem by e. e. cummings, where words rely on punctuation provided by a typewriter:

who
a)sw(eloo)k
upnowgath
PPEGORHRASS
eringint(o

In college, I had a professor who revealed that, when he was feeling stuck while writing, he took out his old typewriter. His computer sat quietly as he worked on the noisier, more satisfying instrument. As the poet Aram Saroyan says, “My machine — an obsolete red-top Royal Portable — is the biggest influence on my work. This red hood holds the mood, keeps my eye happy. The type-face is a standard pica; if it were another style I’d write (subtly) different poems. And when a ribbon gets dull my poems I’m sure change.” Quiet, delicate laptop keys mask subtleties…but here I am bemoaning a technology I learn from everyday, and benefit. (Word count: 501.)

 

III. “Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”

As bothersome as first-line capitalization and more glaring than the red spell check signifier, the jagged green ‘grammar’ line arrests my writing. ‘What’s wrong with that adverb placement?’ ‘I want that sentence to be in the passive voice!’ ‘No, I will not use “that” instead of “which” and I will not insert a comma.’ Being an editor and a native speaker, I’d like to think that I know as much about the English language as a word processor.

… no, I do not, language is more than rules and programs. As E.B. White says, “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” I looked this quote up in a real book, The Elements of Style, and transcribed it.

 

IV. Print Preview

In some ways, technology is remedying its own errors. At the very least, Google Docs solves some of my problems with Microsoft Word. In Google Docs, there aren’t many default settings. The font list is present, but not intimidating. (How did they choose those eleven fonts? The most used? The most popular? Why is Comic Sans still on the list?) There is something intuitive about the completely blank screen that recalls, vaguely, the blank page of yore.

Still, it nags me. In Google Docs, the tab is way too short: the user must insert page breaks, as it says “(for printing)”: a reminder that the archaic practice of applying ink to wood pulp still exists. Even if my writing only glows on blogs, I appreciate the façade that my words are meant for an eight and a half by eleven sheaf of pages. Microsoft Word provides this illusion for me. I have the option of seeing my words processed in “Page View” or “Online View,” or even the creepy lined “Notebook View.” (Thanks, but I’m not in fourth grade.)

 

V. “A new study, however, suggests pigs really were to blame.”

My frustration may stem from the ultimate utility of these tools. I was once appalled by the Microsoft Word tool AutoSummarize (or: the Microsoft Word tool AutoSummarize once appalled me), which certainly turned my writings into nonsense. “In editing this paragraph, I have changed the word count seven times. As the typewriter did to Nietzsche, to Mark Twain, and certainly to e.e. cummings (no shift key there), so Microsoft Word affects us. The computer mediates language. No, Microsoft Word reminds – Nietzsche. This type of rhetorical laziness is born from the word processor.” Hide everything but the summary without leaving the original document.

But, I wondered, what would it do to essays in The Economist, for instance, articles that summarize an idea in the style of a five-paragraph essay? I conducted the experiment and was terrified by the results. AutoSummarize was pretty damn effective. Applied to an article about swine flu, the tool condensed a central passage in the article discussing the flu’s genetic origins: “A new study, however, suggests pigs really were to blame. In a paper published in Science, they confirm that the closest genetic relatives of the new virus are swine-flu strains from both North America and Eurasia. The genetic material in them is indeed a hotchpotch derived from avian, human and swine sources, but all eight segments come most recently from pigs.”

That’s some well-designed software. On an article about Obama’s attempt to expand government, it performed weakly. The thesis was unclear, and the summary omitted a core point of the article. But I still got the main idea before going back and reading the whole piece.

 

 

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Reader Comments (4)

The squiggly green line was a nice idea (not mine) but I don't think it ever worked well enough...too many false positives. You can turn it off, of course.

Best,

Richard Brodie

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