The miraculous word

For some time I have been fascinated by the new word processors that are taking the place of such small and antique machines as that on which I now write. I had heard that our ex-President, Jimmy Carter, was composing his memoirs upon one of them, and my old friend and classmate, the novelist John Hersey, is said likewise to have abandoned both pen and typewriter in favor of the newfangled electronic contraption. So the other day, when IBM offered a three-hour seminar for novices, I promptly enrolled.

The powers-that-be at IBM inquired somewhat closely into my credentials, and I felt like a triumphant schoolboy when I received their assent. I did not tell them, however, that I was at heart an unlikely pupil, for I have some very definite ideas about the nature of the word and its communication. ''In the beginning,'' says the Good Book, ''was the word.'' It existed before any other created thing, as real and solid as any rock or tree. Certainly it did not wait for IBM and other modern electronic wizards to come along and ''process'' it. Kipling tells, somewhere, about the primitive storyteller, the John Hersey of his tribe, whose words were so eloquent that ''they became alive and walked up and down in the hearts of his hearers.'' There were no reviewers in those days to cut a man down to size, and the tribesmen had no recourse but to stone him.

I am myself, in my odd moments, a printer. I set words in obdurate and unfudgeable lead type, and impress them deeply upon the surface of dampened handmade paper. Nothing is processed, pasteurized, improved by additives, or artificially colored in the work of the good printer. Every word counts. Each stands in its line like the wayfarer or the pilgrim upon a holy march. Who then was I to be trafficking with the geniuses of IBM?

Feeling rather guilty, I was admitted into the Madison Avenue offices where the seminar was to be staged, and soon was made at home by the cheerful, matter-of-fact explanations of two attractive young ladies, Gwen Willard and Patricia Williamson, who had been selected to initiate us into these modern mysteries. Four elegantly designed pieces of equipment stood before us, bearing a superficial resemblance to a small portable typewriter, a television set, an electric toaster and a meat-slicer. But they were in fact like no one of these, nor like all of them in combination. They contained (if my memory serves me) a million ''megabytes'' of information. Only a quarter million of these were now employed, and neither Miss Willard nor Miss Williamson told us what the additional 750,000 megabytes were good for. Some miracle of tomorrow, no doubt.

Meanwhile the performance of the machine was startling enough. I shall not go into all its applications and possibilities, being myself chiefly concerned with whether that formidable invention can assist me in writing articles for the Monitorm and in doing other literary chores. In the world of word processors, I learned, one does not speak of writing a book or composing an article or an ode. One talks of ''creating a document.'' And for creating a document the people at IBM (and no doubt at other companies playing the same game) have a very remarkable product.

I liked the way one talks to the machine. You give a sign to indicate that you want to delete words in a sentence you wrote yesterday or the day before. ''Fine,'' says the machine in letters of light, ''which words do you want to delete?'' You give it that piece of information. ''And where do these words appear?'' You tell it that, and before you know it, in the twinkling of an eye, the change has been made. With the same genial intercourse you can shift whole paragraphs around, correct mistakes in spelling, underline remote phrases, move from single-spaced to double-spaced lines -- and then by pushing a button have the whole document come out impeccably typed at the rate of sixty characters per secondm !

The seminar left me in a quandary. How are we old-fashioned authors, professors, lawyers and journalists to survive in a computerized age? How will we fare when we give up the little machines that put one word on paper at a time -- real words with form and shape, with their particular place and weight, not mere electronic impulses charging through the void? At a tense moment in the peace negotiations at Versailles, I recalled, Woodrow Wilson summoned his typewriter. The statesmen of the world, understanding English imperfectly, supposed that some beautiful and efficient American young lady would appear on the scene. They were disappointed to see Wilson's faithful old portable brought in on a silver tray. How would they have felt had they seen arriving an electric toaster and a meat-slicer? And how would Wilson's immaculate words have emerged after being processed?

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