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Writ upon water

By August Heckscher / June 10, 1983



The time has come when I must make a dreadful confession. For some months now I have been writing these essays upon a word processor. Under the heading of thoughts one wishes never had been expressed is a column of some time past making light fun of the computer revolution, especially as it applies to authors. ''I do not want my words to be processed,'' said I - or something equally sententious - ''I want them to be written, or sung, or pronounced flittingly upon the tongue.'' Well, I suppose one is entitled to change one's mind once in a while!

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My son preceded me in the acquisition of a personal computer. I thought it my duty to keep up with him. ''Word-processor speaks to word-processor,'' he wrote me recently, having for years not written me anything at all except in cases of dire emergency. Indeed it seems that family correspondence may be revived and the age of letter-writing restored by an invention which seemed, on the face of it, to be the destroyer of many old practices and values.

Apart from creating a new intimacy between father and son, the common possession of a word-processor is to be commended on the score that the illiterate sire can greatly benefit from the offspring's easy familiarity with the computer age. He was born to it; his brain has been moving to its rhythms since he was a schoolboy. Without his help, provided on extended visits, I think I would somewhere have sunk into the sea of despair.

Once mastered, however, the rewards of the word-processor are immense. My sentences now display themselves in letters of light upon a screen. Yet they are not fixed, as are sentences on paper; they are, as Keats said of his great works , writ upon water. One changes them about, eliminates unnecessary adjectives, makes them more dense and orderly. Then at a secret command given the computer they come out at amazing speed, as permanently set one after the other on white sheets as are the most immortal of literary productions.

The musical composer, working at the piano, must have something of the same experience. He listens to the little tunes he makes with his fingers; plays them again, altering them slightly, and then when all is to his liking writes the notes upon the bars. He, too, must have a sense of fluidity, of endless possibilities and combinations. He sends his inspiration up the flagpole and sees whether it will fly in a fair breeze. Until now the less fortunate writer has been condemned to setting down his thoughts almost like a sculptor carving in stone - everything fixed and rigid. Of course he could resort to the eraser, or make illegible scribbles over the typed word. But what were these poor methods of correction compared to the light touch that now shapes and reshapes everything to his will?

Some miracles are not achieved without cost. No one who has not acquired a word-processor for himself can conceive the anguish of repeatedly pushing the wrong key and having everything fall into confusion before his eyes; or of letting the fruits of his laborious toil lose themselves forever in the void spaces of the universe. Electrical impulses they were and to electrical impulses they have returned, leaving the bereft author convinced that never again will he be able to compose such paragraphs as the ones that have disappeared. So frustrating are experiences like these, one writer on computer science remarks that the machines rarely break down - except when thrown out of the window in a fit of anger.

The stage of learning ultimately passes; that of addiction begins. Possessors of word-processors have been known to sit all day before the screen, estranged from wives and children, growing thin for lack of sustenance. They have become so fascinated by their own words that they dream up imaginary correspondents, or call to mind every slight or injury suffered in the day, belaboring with impressively written complaints such public servants as the managers of bus companies or subway systems. In the end even this stage is outlived. The machine subsides into its rightful place in the scheme of things: an immensely useful gadget, yet one seeming to possess a perverse mind of its own, an ''intelligence'' making the user slightly uneasy.