September 3, 2007

The metaphor of the "page"

I've never liked using Microsoft Word, so I was primed to enjoy this piece by writer Steven Poole, Goodbye, cruel Word:

....The second crucial thing was an answer to prayers I hadn’t even known I was praying. It was Full-Screen Mode, which I first discovered in WriteRoom. WriteRoom’s slogan is “distraction-free writing”, and it does just what it says on the tin. Your entire screen is blacked out, except for the text you are working on. I now use WriteRoom for all my journalism. When I’m working, the screen of my MacBook looks like this....

[picture of orange text on black screen]

.....Pretty old-skool, huh? It’s perfect: far less temptation to switch to a browser window, much better concentration on the text in front of you. WriteRoom has a “typewriter-scrolling mode”, so that the line you are typing is always centred in the screen, not forever threatening to drop off the bottom, and what you have already written scrolls rapidly up off the top of the screen, dissuading you from idly rereading it. It’s a bit like the endless roll of typewriter paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road.

So WriteRoom allows me to turn my whizzy modern computer into the nearest equivalent possible (allowing for modern conveniences like backup to the internet and so on) to my old Brother typewriter and its six-line LCD. The focus is on the words and nothing else. Except for that line you can just make out at the bottom left of the screen. That’s the Live Word Count.

Microsoft Word still uses the metaphor of the page, the computer screen that imitates a blank, bounded sheet of physical paper. For me, this is outdated and unimaginative. It has become a barrier rather than a window. And there is always the distraction of changing font and line-spacing, jumping ahead too quickly to imagining the text as a visual, physical product instead of a process, a fluid semantic interplay. Instead, turning my MacBook into a kind of replica 1980s IBM machine, with the words glowing and hovering in an interstellar void, is liberating: as though I am composing the Platonic ideal of a text that might eventually take many different forms....
(Thanks to Gruber)

When I first encountered it the metaphor of the "page" seemed so utterly cool. WYSIWYG, and all that. And of course it still is, for many purposes. But it can also be so very irritating. I suppose I ought to take a look at the two programs he uses, WriteRoom and Scrivener. But I probably won't find the heart to do so. The truth is, I fell in love once, with the old WriteNow, and since my sweetheart perished along the cruel upgrade trail, I've never looked at another.

Poole's book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality looks like it was a good idea—analyzing the loaded language of politician's sound-bite phrases—that was deformed by his leftist bias. From a reader's amazon review: "...Bush and Blair's 'war on terror' is asymmetric warfare: 'we' are fighting a war; 'you' are not, so you cannot be prisoners of war, only 'enemy combatants' and 'terrorist suspects', so 'we' can imprison you without trial and torture you..."

Uh, sorry to break this to you pal, but if the terrorists are fighting a war, then they are committing war crimes daily, and we could, and probably should, execute them on the battlefield. Under the Geneva Conventions POW status is a reward for following the rules of war. It is Rumsfeld & Co who are being asymmetricly humane and decent.

And I can bet he never once contrasts the terrorist's phrases with the simple fact that any Coalition soldiers captured by al Queda have received torture and death, and usually had their bodies booby-trapped to blow up others... That kinda stuff is OK with a lefty; only Bush and Blair are real, and merit criticism.

Posted by John Weidner at September 3, 2007 8:51 AM
Weblog by John Weidner