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Software Story

Visions of Photoshop, visions of PowerPoint.

A version of this piece was originally broadcast by NPR on the 16 June 2003 edition of NPR's All Things Considered. It can be heard on their web site via RealAudio or Windows Media Player (the link is about halfway down the page).

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My computer talks to me. It makes promises. Usually this happens late at night, when the blue gleam of its screen is the only light on my block, and the clacking of my typing is the only thing in the room. In that almost silent moment, it whispers, “I can make you powerful.”

“Well—okay. What do I do?”

“You must upgrade your version of Photoshop and learn all about its new features, until they are as familiar to you as the name of your mother.”

“What must I give in return?”

“The usual,” says my computer. “A piece of your mind, and a piece of your soul.”

It's complicated, this relationship. I once met a chemist who told me that when he looked at a tree, he didn't see brown and green, he saw the molecules that made up the bark and the leaves. Me, I used Photoshop every day for a year, and after a few months I saw the world in digital layers, ready to be peeled and blended. I looked out the car window and rearranged what I saw to make it more pleasing, moving the street signs and rearranging buildings. Everything was mutable: eye color, hair color, skin tone. In dreams, I would sometimes grab large chunks of my environment and move them around, cutting and pasting as if I had some sort of cosmic mouse.

I am not the only Photoshop dreamer. Some of my friends have confessed they dream in PowerPoint, each slide fading into the next; others browse an imagined web at night, their dream unfolding in links and pages.

There seem to be two kinds of software users, as different as apples and clockwork oranges. The apple sees the computer as a way to get work done, as a place to watch movies and play games, creative, functional, engaging. The clockwork orange sees the computer as a world to explore, like the Renaissance scholar's palace of memory. I am the person who can tell how to import the audio file into the word processing document, the person who knows all the keyboard shortcuts and who goes through a hard drive like an archeologist, trying to glue together documents into something new. I am Faust in the computer's devilish grip, ready to give up a slice of my soul in exchange for secret knowledge and fast Internet access. I'm the one who speaks with my machine late at night.

Marketers know they've got the clockwork oranges hooked, so they aim their messages at the apples. They say we live in the best of all possible worlds - or we would, if you'd just upgrade. They promise the perfect system, laying on the adjectives: this is the simple, quick, exciting, fun-filled, user-friendly way to do anything!

Maybe the apples believe, but we clockwork oranges know the marketers are fibbing: there is no ultimate interface, no super-tool that will make it all easy. There is only an ever-shifting compromise between the needs of the human and the abilities of the machine. Never is this compromise more apparent than in Microsoft Word, now in its tenth revision and 19th year. Word is the program through which so much of the world's prose flows, the gatekeeper to language.

With Word, you can sit down at the beginning of the day and set up your tables and page numbers, align your margins, set your styles, add some charts, establish your index headings, and at the end of the day you haven't written a single word. Its icons call out like the Sirens tempting Odysseus. Click me! Click me! A wraithlike paperclip leaps up and cries out “Looks like you are writing a letter!”

Would George Eliot have finished Middlemarch if she'd been pestered by an animated paperclip? Could Shakespeare have coined the words “hobnob,” “watchdog,” or “lonely” if the spellchecker had marked them with wavy red lines? Would the United States government work better if, rather than amending the constitution, we used “track changes” instead?

No, it's too easy to become lost inside an application, especially one as baroque and complex as Word, too easy to see the program as the hammer for all nails and forget that there are other ways to do things. Yet people still do fine work with pencils. As a clockwork orange, I must be vigilant, because too often it's easier to forget there is a world outside the machine, easier to crawl into bed and drift into the peaceful logic of point-and-click dreams.


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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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