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Word Processing and Externalizing Thinking

December 22nd, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Clive Thompson:

When I first got my hands on a word processor, it felt absolutely uncanny: The words! They’re … they’re moving around! THEY LOOK LIKE PRINTED WORDS BUT THEY’RE MOVING AROUND. But pretty quickly I grasped the new style of composition that was possible, and I loved it. Precisely as Englebart envisioned, I could write longer, more discursive drafts, letting my thoughts wander into ever-more-creative-or-weirder nooks, and taking arguments to their logical endpoint just to see where they’d lead. I could give myself mental permission to do this because it was easy to redact the best parts into my final essay. Robert Frost talked about how he couldn’t tell what a poem was going to be about until he’d finished writing it. That’s what word processors did to my academic and journalistic writing: As the mechanical act of writing became easier, it became easier to write prodigiously as a way of sussing out my own thoughts.

Thompson's judiciously restrained on this, and with good reason.  While handwringing about the way this or that technology are going to destroy the children almost never turns out to be true, the reality is that wordprocessing does open up new possibilities for the manner in which we give our thoughts shape, both to ourselves and to those around us.  The real fun of technological developments like this are not the evaluative questions, but the descriptive questions.  Saying precisely what's different now that our tools have a backspace button is an enormous challenge, but a necessary one before we determine whether those features are desirable or not.

As an attempt, try this on for size:  Thompson suggests the word processor allowed him to "write longer, more discursive drafts, letting my thoughts wander into ever-more-creative-or-weirder nooks, and taking arguments to their logical endpoint just to see where they’d lead."  It may be my failure to imagine thinking in a world without backspace, but it doesn't seem like that manner of thinking is uniquely tied to the ability to cut, paste, and rearrange.

The word processor didn't open up those corridors of thought--it simply externalized the process of getting there.  In a world where multiple drafts was both cumbersome and time consuming, those wanting to work out every detail of their thinking could do so in conversation with others or themselves (which we might call "thinking").  The backspace button has rendered that process less important, which has doubtlessly altered the way we approach the craft of writing.

Contrast that with how Thomas de Zengotita describes writing in Mediated, which is one of my favorite analyses of our contemporary life:   "The idea is that reading and writing, by their nature, turn the mind inward, cultivate habits of rational reflection, encourage the imagination, the inner life in general--thus giving birth to a self in the modern sense."

I'm not convinced that the printing press is to blame for the creation of this "self in the modern sense,"  but I think de Zengotita is on the money in describing how the act of writing aids the inner life.  My suggestion is that the backspace key works against that aspect of writing through the hasty externalization of ourselves in solitude.  The alternative to thinking alone is thinking out loud and where if we need to externalize thoughts before meandering down every corridor ourselves, we might turn to have a conversation with someone else.  Now it's easier to throw down stream-of-consciousness thoughts and let the editing process take over.

I don't want to evaluate this externalization of the writing process, if only because I'm not convinced I've described it right.  And if you have other ideas about what's changed, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

(HT: Conor)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.