From Screen to Page

Reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s superb Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing recently reminded me of a curious element of bpNichol’s First Screening, one the canonical early works of electronic literature (see Jim Andrews’s website for an emulated version and commentary). First Screening is now often treated–and transmitted–as a batch of twelve kinetic poems (originally programmed in Apple BASIC). In fact, Nichol published it as a little book in an edition of 100 copies, the first imprint of the “Underwhich Software Series.” Readers reached the floppy disk only after gazing upon a cover (which featured a computer-designed concrete poem), an author’s note, and colophon. Images of all of these elements are available here.  For present purposes, I want to focus on the colophon:

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Geof Huth, an other early experimenter with digital poetry, has called First Screening Nichol’s digital “incunabulum.” Huth’s commentary focuses on the “incunable” or transitional nature of Nichol’s screenic translation of concrete poetics. In other words, while pioneering in his creative practice, Nichol’s poems still seem to operate according to the assumptions of what, to borrow from Kate Hayles, we might call the “regime of print.” (To put it another way: Nichol may be on his way out of the Gutenberg Galaxy, but his starting point remains clear.) That description seems to work even better when it comes to the printed materials. For not only is Nichol still approaching his work according to print conventions, he’s using the “material vocabulary” (so to speak) of the finer “book arts.” The practices of including information on edition size and, even more importantly, numbering and signing individual copies belong to the fields of fine press printing and artist-bookery.

Hmmm… This gesture has long seemed to me a tad ridiculous given how unimpressive I have found the printed materials, all of which one could now whip up on Microsoft Word in a few minutes. But Kirschenbaum’s book has given me a new appreciation for Nichol’s labors in these printed components (and indeed suggested to me that the paper part needs to be understood as more than marginal to the work) thanks to his discussions of not only how foreign to their first users but also often how labor-intensive were early word processors. Word processing was not simply a matter of clicking tabs and icons, as it is for many now, but something verging on, if not tipping over into, programming.

Following Kirschenbaum’s example, I’ve dipped in the last week into reviews of Nichol’s “word processing programme,” Gutenberg. They recall a period in which word processing was something that users had to learn, which meant that the quality of the manual (usually printed on paper) was of utmost importance. Consider the following remarks on its use from a review published in the journal Creative Computing in June of 1983:

Since the user’s manual is the weakest link in what is probably destined to be a classic word processor, let’s discuss it now and be done with it. The manual was written by the program author, John Wagner. Mr. Wagner makes certain assumptions about the qualifications of the reader and proceeds from there. These assumptions are not always valid.

While he gives detailed instructions for beginning to use the system, he does not tell you why you are doing things. This leaves you in the position of proceeding by rote with no understanding of the reasoning behind the process. To say that this is frustrating is an understatement. I must admit that learning to use Gutenberg from the documentation almost drove me wild.

[…]

I found the editing portion very easy to learn. My problems began when I went into the print portion of the program. With study and concentration and by working through the examples, Gutenberg can be learned, but the documentation offers very little help. After several days of practicing with the program, I suddenly understood what I was supposed to be doing. Others may not have this problem, but I do think it takes dedication to learn to use Gutenberg. (63)

A 1982 review in InfoWorld, similarly concludes that “this program is not easy to use,” noting, for example, that “You must learn three pages of text commands and 11 pages of printer commands before you can function adequately in this environment” (53). The reviewer for Washington Apple Pi Journal, a programmer, likewise laments the difficulty of “understanding the language of formatting and how it is processed by the Print program” (46). (No one seems to like Wagner’s instructions, but they all praise the quality of its pictures.) It is important to recognize that all of the reviews praise the power of Gutenberg, particularly for its ability to wed text and image—an ability exercised by Nichol on the cover. Yet the reviewers’ characterization of word processing as complex and onerous is a far cry from moderns ones. And, most strikingly of all, what is for us now perhaps the simplest of steps—click and (presto!) out comes the printed document—was for these Gutenberg users, and by implication Nichol, in fact the most complex. The movement of text and image from screen to page here appears a hard-won achievement (thus explaining Nichol’s desire to mark it on the colophon). We ought not, then, take Nichol’s printed papers too lightly from a technical perspective. Nichol was showing off what he could do with his Apple IIe here–just as he was in his kinetic poems.

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