User versus subject: a critique of word processing software

User versus subject: a critique of word processing software

If you could design, from start to finish, the software you use to compose your writing, what would it look like? For many, word processing software is precisely what one doesn’t want to think about, and as long as it’s “working,” they don’t have to. The blank screen, the blinking cursor, and all the little functionalities that go into composing, revising, archiving and distributing one’s writing, are simply neutral means for articulating one’s ideas. An ideal “user experience” occurs — the thinking goes — when the software interface dissolves into the seamless union between the user’s input and the software’s output. Such a word processor, in effect, would “step out of the way,” allowing the user to express their thoughts without mediation.

We are accustomed to discussing writing as a tool-independent practice, or rather, a practice whose outcome is changed very little according to its specific medium. Though we have long been fond of taking note of the particularities of novelists, poets and other literati (who doesn’t love the story of Jonathan Edwards pinning his notes to his cloak), these are mostly discussed as if spiritual curiosities. Furthermore, attempts at differentiating writing tools and practices tend to treat writing on the computer as a singular type, because most often, “writing on the computer” simply means using Microsoft Word or a very similar interface. Because there hasn’t been much of a choice when it comes to word processing software, there hasn’t been much reason to dream up other possibilities. And for those who are supposed to be writing a lot, attempts to overhaul their practice can smell a lot like procrastination. At least it has for me.

But this sort of complacent attitude towards writing technology is beginning to change as the last decade has a seen a steady trickle of new, and often free, software for writing and organizing one’s thoughts. A variety of options (Google Docs, Evernote, Wiki, WordPress, social media, or check out this list) has drawn our attention to the different possibilities of the writing environment and its impact on one’s practice. It is not merely a question of the aesthetics and functionalities that apply to the interface of writing a document, but how, where, and when that software organizes its community of readers, writers, and work. One need only compare their writing from different platforms to see how accessibility, publicness, and efficiency can have a radical effect on the frequency, length, tone and subject matter of their writing. Thus the growing suspicion that writing, at least to a greater extent than previously assumed, is shaped by the biases and determinations of the software. There is no form of software that can neutrally realize the user’s ideas, ideas are produced in tandem.

This recent period of software development is complemented by a growing body of work which examines the relationship between software, and what has long been called “the user.” Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: The Literary History of Word Processing, examines some of the first use cases of word processing software in the literary world with an eye for the effect of these new tools on the craft. Additionally, Johanna Drucker’s critique of interface theory, is instructive for disentangling the many ideological assumptions that go into the design and use of software interfaces. Drucker jettisons the conventional term “user” for a “constructivist subject” which “emerges in a codependent relation with (the software’s) affordances.” By this light, we might begin to better see the depth to which software shapes the supposedly autonomous labor of writing.

But where to go from here? Writing interfaces that make too radical a leap from convention are difficult to adopt when one’s profession still trades in conventional file formats and aesthetics. One cannot simply start imagining the “ideal” writing interface without also imagining how that interface might be adopted by a community of writers. For example, say one builds the perfect software environment for composing, sharing, and archiving scholarly research — but that said tool does not easily export writing into docs or pdf files which are necessary, at this point at least, to the scholarly profession. The tool would be worthless.

These are the sorts of things we are thinking about as we build Social Paper, a free, open source socialized writing environment for scholarly work. Though questions of interface can sometimes seem banal (page breaks or no?), their implications are not. If software really does have such an effect on writing, shouldn’t designing the software be conceived as part of the writing itself?

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