Steven Poole recalls his increasing frustration with successively souped-up versions of MS Word:
Microsoft Word still uses the metaphor of the page, the computer screen that imitates a blank, bounded sheet of physical paper. For me, this is outdated and unimaginative. It has become a barrier rather than a window. And there is always the distraction of changing font and line-spacing, jumping ahead too quickly to imagining the text as a visual, physical product instead of a process, a fluid semantic interplay. Instead, turning my MacBook into a kind of replica 1980s IBM machine, with the words glowing and hovering in an interstellar void, is liberating: as though I am composing the Platonic ideal of a text that might eventually take many different forms.
The irony’s easy to see — so much processing power and yet the barest of layouts. But Poole makes it clear that the writing process is a more than just entering letters and formatting pages. The technical functions are there but do they truly improve the writing experience?
(I sympathise, but I like the physicality of pen and paper. Still I’m curious about the stripped-down alternative word processors mentioned.)
I’m reminded of an article by Cory Doctorow on the longevity of print novels despite widespread digitisation. He points out that novels will continue to exist simply because technologically speaking they are the best format so far — portable, bound sheets with letters printed in ink — for reading long content.
The problem, then, isn’t that screens aren’t sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren’t screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
For short content most people are fine with screens.
So there seems to be a kind of “fit” between a given media technology and its usage. Could this could be considered a kind of equilibrium state? Once defined, might it be possible to use this as the basis for discussions about the adoption of new media technologies?