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Francis Russell returns to the HKRB to review a literary history of word processing, discussing what it means to be a writer in the technological age. 

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap, 2016) 368pp.

While a materialist discussion of writing should take into account the technological mediation that facilitates the act itself, it is hard to shake the feeling that the boom of digital word processing software has dematerialised and disembodied writing. One can still get their hands dirty with fountain pens—whether an upmarket Visconti or Pelikan, or a more practical and affordable Lamy—and some prefer the tactility offered by a mechanical keyboard (remakes of the IBM Model M are in vogue). Yet, there is a sense in which the virtual power of a word processor is grounded in its capacity to move beyond material limitations to offer the user an open ended space of almost total control.

It is perhaps because of this sense that word processors slip into the background almost entirely to allow the user full control that makes the technology seems dull and inhuman. Indeed, and for the moment at least, the history of word processing seems decidedly less romantic than that of other writing media. The feel of a Visconti Homo Sapiens, made from hardened basaltic lava of Mt Etna, or the staccato tapping of an Olivetti Lettera typewriter (see this earlier review), confirms that such media are compelling in their tactility; or, even further, that there is something kind of sexy about them.[1]

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Accordingly, what is so compelling about Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing is that it consistently maintains what is singular about word processors as a contemporary mediation of writing, whilst also connecting them to the embodied histories that we associate with other writing tools. Word processors, a tool that can all too easily seem superficial and ubiquitous, are connected here to a range of material conditions and concerns, insofar as Kirschenbaum sorts through the technology as a a site for rethinking creativity, the gendering of technology, the connection between writing and work, and, perhaps more profoundly, the sense of the word processor as being the possible recipient of affect and character. Word processors are inseparable from, and contribute to the emergence of semiocapital and the emphasis of techno-science within contemporary society.

On the other hand, such technology has radically transformed what it means to be a writer, opening up the possibility of considering writing as a more democratic activity. Accordingly, word processors have captured our imaginations and populated our fears, something Kirschenbaum pays close attention to through his charting of the representations of the technology in the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke or Italo Calvino. Such connections, those between a technological innovation and the embodied world of lived experience, are easier to understand when situated historically, insofar as Kirschenbaum reminds us that word processors aren’t simply discrete virtual platforms, but have been—and continue to be—connected to keyboards, screens, offices and homes, industries and communities, and unique writers with divergent aims and views on the labour and art of writing. Fundamentally it is the art of writing, and the influence that technological mediation has on they way writing gets written, that sits at the heart of Track Changes, and is manifested through Kirschenbaum’s delightful and detailed accounts of the writing habits and philosophies of figures such as Steven King, George R.R. Martin, Ralph Ellison, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and even Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida.

Rather than being only a technical or literary history—although it is assuredly both, and rigorously so—Track Changes is a meditation on the possibilities that emerge through the different finitude one encounters with different kinds of technology. Rather than being something limitless and intangible, the word processor has a particular history and character—it shapes writing in specific ways and offers the writer the opportunity to subvert its limitations to ends other media could not invoke. Indeed, if the word processor does not seem to engender romance, profundity, or serious aesthetic inquiry it is simply because its history is not yet well-known and well-loved. A pallid state of affairs that Kirschenbaum’s wonderfull book could do much to correct.

[1] Indeed, what could be less sexy than a word processor like Microsoft word? Complete as it was, for a time, with cartoon mascots like “clippy,” and a generally sterile aesthetic.


Francis Russell is a sessional academic at Curtin University where he teaches art theory and cultural studies. He has published texts in Deleuze Studies, Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, and for a host of non-academic publications. His current research investigates the relationship between ambient aesthetics and the discourses that surround global warming and eco-crisis.

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