Word processing has become such an essential part of our daily lives, particularly for those of us who write for a living, that we tend to take its presence there, and indeed its existence as an activity in itself, for granted. Yet the tool we use for this activity, namely word processing software is, of course, like the personal computer on which it depends, a very recent innovation in the story of the written word. Indeed, the modern incarnation of the word processor, such as Microsoft Word, was by no means an inevitability, and could, in principle at least, have taken a different form.

The essential component of what we would now call a word processor is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, which displays your work on screen as it will look on the printed page, in real time. In this way, the word processor brings together meaning and form in much the same way that we would if we sat in front of a piece of paper and began writing and/or drawing. In so doing, the word processor gives us the illusion of an experience akin to physically writing.

The arrival of the WYSIWYG paradigm for word processing in the 1980s represented a revolution in the way that we interact with the process of writing. However, before its arrival, software for writing would generally separate meaning and form. This is to say that text would be composed independently of the specification of its final appearance. In considerable measure this was because it was simply not possible technologically at that stage in time to bring the two together in real time. Nevertheless, the separation of meaning and form has advantages in the writing process. It enables the writer to focus on what s/he wants to say first, without needing to worry about its final appearance, which can be decided later. Many writers have found this helpful, to the extent that some, including, notably, George R. R. Martin, still use 1980s software written for MS-DOS for their writing.[1]

While the look and feel of word processors today may be state-of-the-art, the essential paradigm has not in fact changed much at all since the late 1980s, as a comparison of the following screenshots shows:

Microsoft Word for Windows 1.1a (c. 1989)[2]/Microsoft 365 – Microsoft Word (2020)[3]

This paradigm may well be with us for some time to come. It is striking, for instance, that despite the ready availability of e-readers, the printed book has remained an attractive proposition. Sales of physical books have hardly been affected by those of e-books. Indeed, still represent by far the majority of book sales, at least in the US.[4] From another perspective, it is striking that we still tend to view official or academic electronic documents (as opposed to e.g. works of fiction) as facsimiles of what they would look like on the printed page, even if they never exist—or at least we never see them—as such.

However, the history of our interaction with writing shows that at some point the paradigm will change. So, for example, writing moved from the clay tablet to papyrus and parchment, and the format moved from the scroll to the codex. And it is the latter that, albeit now baptised ‘book’, that we have preserved to this day.

Sumerian clay tablet[5]

Scroll of the book of Esther[6]

Codex Vaticanus[7]

Furthermore, given that the events of 2020 have catalysed changes to our lives that were already in the offing, a change in the paradigm(s) of our interaction with writing may come sooner rather than later. What might one of those new paradigms look like?

We have all become (over) familiar with online collaboration tools and video conferencing software than we might have expected at the year’s beginning, and it seems unlikely this will change any time soon. What has also become clear, however, is the extent to which, in the perception of many, these online tools are currently significantly inferior to face-to-face interaction, hence the notion of ‘Zoom fatigue’. This situation is, however, likely to improve in the coming years. As bandwidths become greater, and VR and AR technology becomes more affordable, it seems reasonable to suppose that the ‘Zoom meetings’ in which we currently interact with one another will be replaced by meetings in virtual 3D space, rather than the 2D one most of us inhabit at the moment. What will our interaction with the written word in that space be like?

It is probably easier to say what it could be like than what it will be like. For example, no limits would be set by the geometrical parameters of a (virtual) piece of paper. Thus, writing could be projected on to any number of surfaces, such as a cube, a sphere or a cylinder. Indeed, there would be no need for a surface at all: with AR or VR text could simply be suspended in mid-‘air’. Thus one could imagine a meeting where the participants were discussing a text, and all looking at a virtual text suspended in the middle of the group.  

Virtual text suspended in a virtual room (with a virtual person)[8]

Of course, none of this means that we will necessarily dispense with reading from (the illusion of) pieces of paper, and our interaction with the written word may simply continue to imitate the physical reality of the printed word that we currently enjoy. Bold experiments in how we interact with the (virtual) written word have been attempted before, and not really gone anywhere.[9] However, the possibilities of VR and AR mean that we need not continue to read in the way to which we have become accustomed, and the history of writing shows that the format our interaction with the written word takes will change at some point. In a virtual world, the possibilities are boundless.

References / Further reading

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. 2016. Track changes: A literary history of word processing. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hegland, Frode A. (ed.) 2020. The future of text. Future Text Publishing. https://futuretextpublishing.com/future-of-text-2020-download/

~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)

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[1] https://www.cnet.com/news/george-r-r-martin-writes-with-a-dos-word-processor/

[2] Built from sources provided by the Computer History Museum (https://computerhistory.org/blog/microsoft-word-for-windows-1-1a-source-code/). Used with permission from Microsoft. (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/legal/intellectualproperty/permissions/default)

[3] Used with permission from Microsoft. (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/legal/intellectualproperty/permissions/default)

[4] See, e.g. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/19/physical-books-still-outsell-e-books-and-heres-why.html

[5] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Letter_Luenna_Louvre_AO4238.jpg

[6] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scroll.jpg

[7] Picture taken by Leszek Jańczuk (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Vaticanus,_XXI_Targi_Wydawc%C3%B3w_Katolickich_2015-05-03_0019.JPG) licenced under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en.

[8] Created with Vectary (vecary.com). Virtual person from: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/BGAswBlvR6Qc713HVSsJAa0DyPZ5LuEpTF2GbsSRePYQ70nvpVvDLvxnfqAi9Cpg

[9] See e.g. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/surf/111997mind.html

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