Previous: Dead Letter Office Dept.
The first program I ever used for word processing was WordStar 3.3, which came with the PC clone my father brought home from work one day. For perspective, this machine — the Panasonic Senior Partner, it was called — was what they called a "lunchbox" or "luggable" PC — a full clone of the original IBM PC with a built-in 9" monochrome monitor, two 5" floppy drives (one of which was replaced with 10MB hard drive later on), a built-in thermal printer, and a power supply so loud you could hear the machine running from the next room. I think I ended up using the PC more than my father did.
I stayed with WordStar 3.3 (later 4.0) until I eventually bought my own PC, when I switched over to WordPerfect. That in turn I stayed with until I discovered Word for Windows, where I remain today. I mention this to some people — mostly purists who still use the DOS version of WordPerfect — and I watch them thrash around and scream in agony. Why, why, why would I want to give up on the purity, the simplicity, the elegance of WordPerfect and replace it with that awfulbad terrinogood abominotrocity known as Word?!
Call it "technostalgia": the longing not only for an earlier, simpler, less cluttered way of doing things, but also for the entire life that one imagined was being led during that time as well. Patrick Farley did a wonderful job of encapsulating this mentality in his story "The Guy I Almost Was": A twenty-something with no money and a dead-end job spies a vintage Hermes 3000 typewriter at a yard sale, decides to drop out of the technology rat race entirely, buys it, and in the end finds that you really can't go home again. What he wanted was not just the directness of the machine, but to live in the whole world implied by that machine's existence, one where all the stupid complications of the moment didn't exist anymore.
I've felt a great deal of this in the moments when I wanted to heave my Android phone out a window and replace it with a stock featurephone whose most sophisticated component was its dialer and address book. At least my old Nokia flip-phone was reliable and lasted more than half a day on its charge! That was one of the ways I experienced firsthand how not all "progress" has been positive.
There was a period, not all that long ago, where I flirted with the idea of ditching Word and going back to WordPerfect or WordStar for DOS, if only in the most provisional and experimental way. Who knows, I told myself, it might even be kind of fun — a sort of high-tech reversion to paper and pencil, a way to focus on the writing and nothing but rather than the glitz of the computer itself.
Then I remembered all the reasons I'd left WordPerfect and WordStar behind in the first place.
No block-level styles. In WordPerfect's case, there was something that looked like a block-level style, but wasn't: it was simply a macro that inserted the needed style data. For any document that contained more than a trivial amount of formatting, this quickly became untenable. Back in the DOS days, it was untenable for two reasons: it made the documents bloated (a feature-length screenplay bloated up to 700K or more, which was not a trivial amount of space in those days), and it made it very difficult to make global stylistic changes without a lot of fussing.
No support for Unicode. Forget about mixing Japanese and English in the same document — heck, forget about anything other than straight ASCII text. (Strictly speaking, this is a feature I stayed with Word for rather than abandoned the other programs for not having, but it's another roadblock any way you cut it.)
Minimal spell checking; no grammar checking. I know people who think these tools are nothing but "crutches" and do nothing but make one's spelling worse, or encourage sloppiness, or things to that effect. I am not one of those people.
No support for hyperlinks. Sounds like a tiny little thing, but the vast majority of the stuff I write is meant for Internet publishing in some form. I don't feel like going back with a whole 'nother program (and duplicating work) and inserting those things after the fact when I can do them in the same program I'm writing with anyway. And no, I don't feel like looking at <a href="http://www.google.com">text like this</a> every single time I would rather see this and be done with it.
And so on.
I could, I guess, haul out a copy of DOSBox, set up something in it, do my actual writing there, then save that to a file and do any additional manipulation I needed elsewhere. But I know I am not that compulsively hidebound; I know that would be more pain than it was worth, just for having a whiff of that old green-screen magic.
Said magic only existed in the first place because WordStar and WordPerfect were all we had in those days. There was nothing else. It's easy in retrospect to call lack of choice the best of all possible worlds. It's easy to forget about how fragile floppies were, or how hard disks crapped out so routinely, or how bog-awful slow so many things were — the POST cycle on my first PC was a good two minutes; today, I come up out of sleep mode in three seconds — or any of the other things we conveniently choose not to remember because they break the warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia.
If you find the idea of Word that odious, then you still have options: there are plain-text editors, DOS emulators — heck, there's emacs and LaTeX if you're so inclined. I know people who do just that, and I don't think of them as masochists all lining up to shoot themselves in the foot.
What I reject is the implication that these tools are somehow morally superior to Word — that by using Word I am simply using the computer as a "glorified typewriter". The computer works for me, not the other way around, and by using Word I am not "dumbing down" my work; I am using the toolset I'm now most comfortable with and get the best results from.
Some people feel they're more in the driver's seat with another toolset, and I'm fine with that. I know WordPerfect lovers who still refuse to use Word because it doesn't have a "reveal codes" function. (Actually, it does, it's called the "Style Inspector" and "Reveal Formatting" functions.) I know full well nothing I say is going to make them dump WordPerfect and go to Word. Nothing I can say will ever persuade someone who loved WordPerfect (or XyWrite, for that matter!) that they are theoretically in a better place now — no more so than I can persuade the man who reluctantly and with great heartbreak left his family behind and emigrated here that the U.S. is a better place for him than home. Home is whatever your heart tells you is home. If you're happy with WordPerfect, who am I to tell you otherwise?
All I ask in return is that I not be considered some kind of lemming at best, or traitor at worst, for using Word.
My first typewriter didn't have a zero or 1 key, or an exclamation point. Zeroes were capital Os; ones were lower-case Ls; and the exclamation point was a quote mark typed on top of a period. I don't miss those days as much as I tell myself I do.
Previous: Dead Letter Office Dept.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind