Track Changes (Book by Matthew Kirschenbaum)

I’m currently reading “Track Changes – A Literary History of Word Processing” by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) which is about an interesting period of time in which computers weren’t powerful enough to expand into the mess we’re in today and therefore were limited to basic text manipulation only. For my research of text and hypertext systems, I usually don’t look too much at retro computing because I can’t get those machines and their software any more in order to do my own reading, writing and publishing with them, but it gets relevant again where those artifacts provided certain mechanisms, functions and approaches, because those, why not, should be transferred/translated into our modern computing world so we can enjoy them again and extend them beyond their original conception and implementation. My particular question towards the book has to do with my still unsuccessful attempts to build a change tracking text editor and the title of the book referring to the “track changes” feature of Microsoft Word leaves me wondering if there is or was a writing environment that implemented change tracking the right way. I’m not aware of a single one, but there must be one out there I guess, it’s too trivial for not having come into existence yet.

After completing the read, the hypertext-relevant findings are: over time, the term “word processor” referred to a dedicated hardware device for writing (not necessarily a general-purpose computer), to a person in an office who would perform writing tasks, “word processing” then as an organizational methodology for the office (probably the “office automation” Doug Engelbart was not in favor of), as a set of capabilities to “process text-oriented data” analogous to data processing and finally, as we know it today, almost exclusively as a category of software applications. The latter led to a huge loss of the earlier text-oriented capabilities, which are pretty rare in modern word processor applications as they’re primarily concerned with the separate activity of typesetting for print (in the WYSIWYG way). The earlier word processors were limited to just letters on the screen because there wasn’t the graphical user interface yet, so they offered interesting schemes for text manipulation that are since forgotten. The book doesn’t discuss those in great detail, but at least indicates their existence, so further study can be conducted.

Kirschenbaum once again confirms the outrageously bad practices regarding the way “publishers” deal with “their” texts and how authors and editors “collaborate” together. The book is more of a report on the historical development and the status quo, so don’t expect suggestions for improvement or a grand vision about how we might get text to work better in the future.

This text is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License 3 + any later version and/or under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

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