Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 3 / March 1, 1995 / Page 18


My Humble Beginnings

by Nancy Kaplan

Twenty five years ago (give or take a few), I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan majoring in English literature. By chance, I was also employed as an editor for technical documentation at the university's computing center, an enterprise heavily funded by the Defense Department and an early participant in what was then known as DARPA.

The technical documentation, thirteen volumes of it, was produced on punch cards. Typographic errors were, needless to say, costly. You cannot backspace to delete a hole you have just punched into a card. Back in the late sixties, no text editing, let alone word processing capabilities were supported. Computing center operators, exalted keepers of an inner sanctum, communicated with their charges by means of what looked like a strange cross between a typewriter and a teletype machine. When operators had to send instructions to the machine and the machine sent back queries or confirmations, both parties to the communication seemed to be shouting -- not because the noise in the machine room was so loud but because the human end of the "conversation" took place via a scroll of paper on which nothing but capital letters and a few bits of punctuation appeared.

Perhaps we can never know what explicit understandings of their tools the engineers at IBM employed when they decided to restrict the alphabet to 26 upper case letters and a tiny subset of punctuation marks, but it is reasonably evident from that decision that they did not conceive of the tool as a device for writing or even for transmitting the written word. Those design decisions, lodged deeply within the workings of the tools and enunciating an ontological claim, remain evident in subsequent designs, in much later generations of chips, operating systems, video display technologies, and word processing systems. They remain the unseen grounding of Microsoft's DOS and until recently the thinly disguised grounding of its popular Windows interface.

As late as the mid-80s, in fact, mainframe computing remained inhospitable for human communicators. The technical capacities of the machines could have supported the development of full-scale word-processing, full WYSIWYG texthandling, but no such software was ever developed for them. The software for handling electronic mail on most of these machines still does not allow full screen editing or any formatting. Some of these programs do not even wrap words from one line to the next automatically.

Meanwhile, on the national scene, some forward-thinking folk in the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation cooked up the beginnings of the Internet (even though the scientists and engineers who were supposed to use the network to share information really weren't interested).

So what?

This page is part of the article, "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print."

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