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Notes for an Essay on Microsoft Word

Damn the paperclip to hell.

Version 0.2b

My thinking is in a transitional state, as I sort out things technical and personal. As a result, this Ftrain article is not a finished thing, but a big pile of ideas, thrown out of my head into a buffer. You're welcome to any ideas you like, but there are so many digressions, so few real points, you may want to spend your time elsewhere.

I make my living putting words, then paragraphs, then sections of text, into structured sequences. I could call it writing, but it is often as much sorting or design or listing. Some of my sequences are published as brochures, business articles, or Web sites, others are read by corporate Vice Presidents and discarded. Some influence the design of a particular piece of software. From necessity, I usually create these documents in Microsoft Word, the established, standard tool for American corporate alphanumeric symbol-arranging.

Microsoft Word is a fascinating landscape of cultural thought, expressed as a consumer software product. It breaks the writing process of creating a document into the application of hundreds of small tools, very few of which have anything to do with writing words. Most of the tool involve operating upon symbols, syymbols which might or might not be made of the characters on your keyboard. One tool might allow you to sketch a circle, turn a paragraph red, or include a rotating 3D cube in the middle of your document.

In the most recent millennia, thousands of rhetoricians and professors have desconstructed the writing process into component structures, from before Aristotle to I.A. Richards to Richard Lanham. While they've written enormous essays on the theory of composition and the structure of documents, Microsoft has not heeded their counsel in its design for Word. Microsoft has built something quite different, a composition tool for various kinds of media, something McLuhanist, with Postmodern currents beneath it, and ultimately intended to serve the marketplace rather than promote best practices. Many computer types seem fascinated by Postmodernism. I've written a mini-essay on this, which began as a note but got too big for its trousers. It's included at the bottom of this article.

Other software is also designed along these lines. Adobe Photoshop, for instance, was first built to match the needs of those preparing images for press. It offers a host of components based on darkroom techniques - "dodge," "burn," and so forth, as well as canned "filters," which are the same in theory as MSWord's host of icons. The filters are a sort of prefab creativity, and mostly emulate other media; they turn images into pretend oil paintings, or photocopies, or crosshatch drawings. Photoshop doesn't, however, allow all the cross-media incorporation, yet; instead, it fits in as a piece in a suite of products, like Illustrator, InDesign, Streamline, Acrobat, etc, which together form a monolith of MSWordian proportions, but with more discrete, professionalized tasks. As image or video processing becomes more and more a daily task, however, you can expect the worst abuses of Word to perpetrated upon other software. Even the free-software GIMP has a built-in e-mail mode, created self-consciously to fulfill the computer-science axiom that "all software expands until it can send mail."

Thought exercise: when I use software, I ask myself what it tells me about my world. The browser which will display this random, meandering essay tells me, in large icons, that I may wish to go back from this page, receding, or forward to where I've been before. My personal experience of the non-linear Web is very linear; I move back and forth across a line of pages, creating a personal "history" file (which I can also browse), adding bookmarks to a menu, where they're listed in the order I put them there. Later, I can sort them into a non-linear, categorical form.

So the browser is an archive, a timeline, in its way.

There's more, though. Its primary application is to display Web pages,. Most browsers now contain tools to create Web pages, chat live, send e-mail, and maintain addresses. These are more fundamental acts than reading, which is personal, based on the technology of text; they're communicative. The Browser connects you to the landscape of information, and the other tools allow you means to discuss it, to share inside of it? I know the goal of the browsing experience is to be all-integrative - ultimately turning into Virtual Reality, fully immersive 3D, superseding the phone, superseding face-to-face meetings. The idea then is that there is no conversation without annotations, without references and hyperlinks, and a call to your father will include forwarded jokes, pictures, reviews, everything.

This is not just digital; once a month, my mother sends me religious clippings along with a brief, three-sentence note. She is annotating our relationship, pulling in samples from the media and collaging them onto our connection, adding them to the wire. VR and the Internet simply formalize that sort of thing, by providing a consistent addressing scheme for everything under the sun.

So, why did they choose this approach for the browser? And when you have the obvious solution to that obvious question, then why? And why again? The Why? matters, because everywhere I read, regardless of the creed or ideology of the authors, people agree that the future is tied somehow into all of these networks and digital tools. After all, if you were going to sneak in "cultural imperialism," there's no better way than software design; it flies under the radar in the guise of abstract utility. And these are tools, thus they can be probably be used as weapons in some way. And a million other reasons. The interface of MSWord may not matter as much as the homeless problem, or world hunger, at all. But it might not be as far from those problems as we think. Language is a sacred space for me; I'm not an athiest when I write. While my apartment can be a mess, and my life in shambles, I'm liberated at the black, text-only console.

Recursion: there is also software, in the form of a computer script, inside of the page you're reading now. It just loaded a text file, listing each entry, placing links at the bottom of the page. I wrote it so that I wouldn't need to bother with much HTML, just

tags and image references. It converts a tag into the gray note boxes on the right, without the need for complex HTML when I write. I wrote the script/page for utility, but it also consistently expresses the things I think are important about this Web site: the image at the top, the word "F T R A I N," and the other elements create an Ftrain "brand." They're inescapable to the reader. They create the Ftrain "culture," in a way.

Further recursion: I am writing a novel, a sci-fi type thing. I have an editor who will look at some chapters, so I'm undertaking a more focused and active novel-writing process than I might otherwise undertake, putting aside paying work to do so. The narrative of the novel and the narrative of this site are beginning to intertwine, often outside of my control, and they connect with the flow of my life. My friends read these Web pages and speak to me as if I'd spoken the words here directly to them, over the phone or in person. In the novel, the ideas, including these ideas, are being played out 100 years from now, in the standard cities with tall spires, with the expected sections of the protagonist's brain accidentally turned into quantum-biological-nanotech computers, jangling and tuning the nerves in his head, where each aspect of life is absorbed by the network, and yet the desires and kindnesses and passions of the human, part of phylum Chordata, remain identical to those I know from experience.

Furthest recursion: When I erased the dozens of old entries and re-started Ftrain in its current incarnation, I'd spent 4 months of my spare time mapping out exactly how to represent complex documents in relational databases. It's been done before, but I wanted to figure it out myself. I eventually arrived at a way to hold all level of complexity and structure inside a small number of tables, thus making documents easy to sort and edit, while allowing for multiple authors per document and a moving window of what a document was. It could be an entire community of Web sites, it could be a single sentence, at any given time. I was going to implement all of this as a multi-author Web based system for mutual communities of expression, first as a newspaper that would compile itself, but then with more complicated interfaces, and I built some prototypes. They worked well enough, enough to convince me it was viable. But I found myself shirking the responsibility of writing. It made me wonder what the whole point of it was. Enough with the encapsulating interfaces, enough with the jargon and the vapid punditry; what about the sequences of letters themselves?

Take those three recursions above, and multiply them times thousands of marketers, programmers, testers, managers - a real culture of corporate development, not just a penny ante Web site - and you have fractal software design, a recursive pool of desires, wants, market research, technical limitations, and exhausting deadline, and thus you have Microsoft Word.

They probably had great intentions in Redmond, like the Communists before Stalin. But it's ultimately a failure for all but defined tasks. Technologies like the Office Assistant, with its dreaded paperclip, interfere in your most private moments:

So what's the alternative? I don't know. I'm not so savvy as the 20-something Web pundits, so I can't tell you.

Others have thought about it more, so let me pull in a quote; in Electric Language, writing specifically about word processing, Michael Heim, who from the 1980's has written about computing as a philosophical endeavor, and is the opposite of the Media- Virus- Meme-o-matic pundits, puts it this way (with my emphases):

In any case, current research on computer interface has shown that it is necessary for the user to develop a mental model or set of inferences concerning the underlying movement of the system. However crude and unsophisticated it may be, a mental model allows the user to build some basis on which experiences can be collected and from which the user can respond to the interactive processes of automated writing. A metaphor or sense-endowing map of the system is not provided ready-made by the technology, as was frequently the case with mechanical operations. Because of the indefinite number of its operations and becaus of the flexibility of any given software, the user can never wholly rely on a so-called idiot-proof system; it will always be necessary to manage problems as the system is applied to different tasks in the flow of information in thought and writing.
Michael Heim is a "philosopher of cyberspace." But he means it - he takes Leibniz, Heidigger, and the rest of them and applies them to the digital. He's focused his mind on virtual reality for much of the last decade. It was a somewhat unfashionable choice of study, I think, since VR is out of favor in the computer world and computers spook academics, but it will prove prescient as the digital world expands. Mark my words.

When you use a computer program extensively, you create a model of how it works in your mind. MSWord, in theory, works like business is supposed to work: every piece fits together, and the end result is hopefully greater the sum of its parts. Microsoft Office is called that for a reason. But it doesn't happen: you run up against limits as you attempt to use the program in any seriously advanced way, because the program was designed to anticipate your behavior, to predict your needs, rather than providing you with the tools you needed to satisfy them yourself. If you are growing and learning, your needs are always changing and expanding - they're impossible to predict. So, ultimately, you hit the Redmond Paradox: the canned routines of MSWord - even though MSWord is built with enormous cultural assumptions about how we order our world built in - can't satisfy your work. And successive versions of the software are self-fulfilling prophecies: we release this new version to meet the needs the old one didn't, acknowledging in turn that this software will also not meet needs.

I need to come back here and back up my argument with lots of examples. For now, I'll wuss out.The trouble is, this whole modularity thing isn't effective when there's a lot of work to do, especially in a knowledge economy, where putting ideas together creatively, in new ways, is key to corporate growth. Most recent business theory books, especially those focusing on the digital economy (like Unleashing the Killer App push creativity, teamwork, and exploration over modularity of individuals. Working on building Web sites, which is a network-and-knowledge intensive, incredibly rapid growth industry, I've had roughly 14 positions in 3 years, which makes the concept of a title, or a set role, meaningless. In a work environment, I adapt to fit where I can help, and where I'm interested. If I don't make a difference, or I'm bored, I quit. Total Quality Management, understanding my place in the organization and filling it completely with responsibility to the whole corporate entity, has no meaning to me; there's no point in me learning a role as much as learning techniques for adapting.

Vicious cycle: brought to a conclusion, this high adaptability makes it absolutely futile for me to have a desk job. Corporations must do things well in a reliable manner, and minimize failure. I am interested in doing things wrong and failing (hence this essay, which is definitely a failure, but hopefully an inspired failure--see?--which will lead me to clearer and more valuable, in-depth thinking later.

Right now, no role exists for me to fill as writer- thinker- bad-programmer- strategist- creative- brand- mascot- etc; I flounder and thrash unless I can consider documents and databases along with the flow of language and poetry. This sounds pretentious but it's fairly grave; I've gotten to a point where I just can't handle being in an office working on projects, and my mind wanders so far off point I feel I shouldn't even charge people for what I do, and it makes me a liability. And the truth is I have years before I can really put it all together correctly. I'm still as dumb as dirt. I'll be up all night this Sunday doing the things I didn't bother to think about last week because I was reading library books. Can the instinct to express and learn be reconciled with the instinct to work and be part of a productive group? Academia doesn't really work that way. Are the two instincts like Eros & Thanatos? Tom & Jerry? Ricky & Lucy? Clinton & Lewinsky?

Since all of it is my life, and I have no interest in separating life and work from one another in some corporate centrifuge, I remain gainfully unemployed, writing code some weeks, writing copy some others.

This is where the essay ends, for now.


Early Notes on Postmodernism and Computer Science

Many computer types seem fascinated by Postmodernism. The first example of this I found online was computer scientist Andrew C. Bulhak's Postmodern Essay Generator (link broken; new links don't work), based on his "Dada Engine." This produced random text from sets of words. I found the Dada Engine about 4 years ago. (In a strange recursion, after I wrote a draft of this Ftrain, but before I posted it, Andrew linked to Ftrain via a "weblog" site. Connections between knowledge online are fractal in subtle ways, but more on that later.)

In the four years since, I've seen essays ranging from How To Deconstruct Almost Anything, "the story of one computer professional's explorations in the world of postmodern literary criticism" to Larry Wall's lengthy explanation of Perl as a Postmodern programming language. On the other side, the Theory crowd digs science, usually without a lick of understanding, writing about chaos theory and "quantum gravity as the roots of the other" in a seamless, cheerful stream of babble. There's an amusing book out there called Fashionable Nonsense where scientists take on Pomo Critics. Me, I understand neither the science nor the Postmodernism very well, at least during this decade of my life. The hazard of being a generalist is you stay stupid longer. More on this later.

To hypothesize from a ridiculously tiny experimental base: do code wonks and Theory wonks have the same fascinations? Postmodernists are extremely curious about the deep structures of our culture, and they'll go so far as to say that our culture is what defines our atoms, not the other way around. Computer scientists interested in non-traditional domains (say, algorithmic video and sound composition, as opposed to efficient search algorithms) and especially those interested in the Internet are also arguing against the atoms. They won't always talk about it, but they're into re-arranging the creative and cultural universe into manageable structures; they're implementing the structures the PoMo critics are exploring, actually hard-coding "units of meaning" into their software, or to take it up a metalevel, they're implementing tools which have built-in assumptions about the structures the PoMo critics are exploring, like with VRML, or CSound, or MSWord. I think it all emerges from data instinct, that weird ability humans have to simply absorb ideas after enough time online, rather than knowledge (more on data instinct later.)

In any case, that's the real promise of Virtual Reality. VR is not just a jackoff fantasyland; it's a tool for modeling all the wacked-out nonsense and relationships, for playing out the differences in our minds and our situations. More on this later.

It'll all out when quantum computers show up, mark my words. More on this later.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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