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ATPM 17.11
November 2011





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Dave Trautman,

Reflecting on the Green Screen Experience

Before a computer could search the world for a piece of video (and well before people were providing profile updates on a minute-to-minute basis) the screen and the text were the most significant thing a computer could accomplish. There were drawing machines and calculating machines and printing machines, but the most useful of them all was the writing machine.

Can you not say the majority of what we link to in a browser is the text? Even the sites which feature audio, video, and images require text and more text to provide con-text.

These are the thoughts. These are the ideas. This is what the World Wide Web was designed to do: share ideas and compile everyone’s thoughts. It was intended to allow people to annotate their writing with links to other writing and to reference other people’s thoughts with a hybrid document, allowing a simultaneous experience of both the flow of the author’s thoughts along with the derivation of their thinking from other authors’ thoughts.

I was first asked to use a personal computer in my workplace, which required me to learn a lot of related things before I was able to settle down and write with it. I had to learn to load floppy disks, format them, create directories, open and save documents to these disks, and make copies and backups of these disks. I also had to learn an arcane method of formatting text into a print output. I had to learn how to launch a writing program and to store my progress on removable media. But the most significant thing I had to learn about using a computer to write with was allowing the text to “wrap” from the right margin back to the left. I had to stop using the Return key.

As someone schooled in both manual and electric typewriting, and who was quite adept with both, I had been indoctrinated to the pattern and rhythm of typewriter keys, rollers, and return swipes. With electric typing, the Return key is quickly your friend and allows a meaningful speed-up of your writing. It was a long first two weeks until I habituated to this new writing machine.

I was eventually able to write a variety of documents on this new machine. I did some reports once I mastered the coda of emphasis, spacing, margins, and tabs. I also was able to benefit from the automated format “macro” available through a script-writing program. I marveled at the predictability of the macro, which knew what my script format required at each step. I very quickly invested time and energy into learning every function and feature of that scripting program. Script writing, for those who have never tried it, has a particularly arcane set of rules within a narrow set of document specifications. It cannot be compared with such things as APA Style or Chicago Style rules. Yes, there are many style rules in those guides, but for a proper and permitted screenplay, the rules for writing them are nothing less than ruthless. At least at the time I was using the same particular script-writing program they were.

The other perceptual shift I had to make was related to the “endless roll” of virtual paper on which a person could write without end. Electronic document writing allowed me a limitless vista of length and no need to insert paper or line up carbon layers. This virtual writing reality immersed me immediately into the possibilities of non-stop pagination, continual and uninterrupted stream of conscious composition, and the satisfaction of instant reprints and copies.

By the time I was seriously involved with this new keyboard-based interface, I was attempting to cram the key combination codes, for cutting and pasting and sophisticated formatting, into my already stuffed brain. This new textual and tactile world of writing drew me into its spell completely. I was actually able to prepare and anticipate the organization of words, paragraphs, headings, and footnotes before I arrived at the machine. I would have worked out much of how I was going to structure and tabulate something before I began the act of typing of it. I was used to this kind of thinking from having learned to write with a typewriter and having to understand the density of text from typeface to line spacing and indenting. This new writing system had only one drawback to it, which to this day still tugs at my nervous system. It was the irrelevance of the paper itself.

Not that I was immediately convinced of the paper-less office or any kind of transition away from the printed word. But—while engaged with the process of placing words and thoughts into the byte-stream of memory chips and having those same bytes rendered on magnetic substrates—it was difficult to set aside the actual paper on which these words would eventually be inscribed. At this time, the appearance of a laser-guided imaging system allowed for a remarkably faithful reproduction of the text, nearly indistinguishable from an offset press image.

Any kind of failure on these new writing systems was almost always catastrophic. When you are typing something, you can make errors or rewrite an entire page to allow for a new paragraph or change to a sentence. One did not always expect to start writing from the first page if one accidentally dropped a clutch of pages in the wind. But if your magnetic recording is fouled up in all manner of possible flaws and interferences, you will have nothing.

The whole notion of having other copies of what you were writing is a conceptual leap which every digital writer has had to make. Although not that difficult to adjust to, the requirement is a bold statement regarding the fragility of data and the reliance on technological innovation to increase reliability—as well as provide meaningful reduction in risk. This new level of risk emerges from the process; like turning to find a mother bison coming at you in full gallop. The sudden realization and blood curdling panic which races up your spine when you are met with the inexplicable error message regarding your hours of keyboarding not being found on this disk is a kind of terraforming of the brain from which you will never return. It is the night terror of this new virtual writing where it could all vanish in a misplaced keystroke.

But learning is all about mistakes.

Everyone who is eventually introduced to this new world of text construction takes this lesson in a different way, keeps a different tale of woe, and registers a new found respect for the fleeting finality of formatting a disk.

The green on the screen falls deeply into the subconscious whenever one is immersed in their fantasy world of storytelling. In time our eyes acclimatize to the contrast and the ever halting progress of the cursor block as all your words appear as if revealed, character by character, from the deep black of the surrounding void. The compressed descenders of the modified typeface to accommodate the word-space of each line produces an altered state of awareness that these representations of the text are only a reasonable facsimile of the final work. These blocks of green (spaced and aligned) can only suggest what will end up on the printed page. Just as one who types onto the roller is only able to offer up a reference work for the typesetter’s eye, so too, the green screen of those early computers found a tolerant mind ready to accept their limitations if the relationship could flourish and the outcomes were as satisfying as before.

For as long as these early months lasted and the “pure text” experience of the keyboard and screen helped me produce useful results, I was ready, willing, and able to acquire the new knowledge necessary to make it perform for me. My needs were simple and my skills were quickly reaching mastery in this entirely word-process activity. This was progress and this was useful. This was helpful and had increasing efficiencies, which moved my work and my career forward. My output on the green screen was considerably higher by volume, but to this day I have still to evaluate the results in terms of quality.

All manner of work-related activities were quickly subsumed by the leverage of a screen and keyboard. What was once the province of computer analysts in air-tight rooms with elevated floors, massive iron, and cryptic conversations seemed to be arriving on people’s desks daily for use in their everyday activities. That so much time and workplace effort was redirected toward learning to shape your work to fit the demands of the keyboard has been the subject of perhaps not just a few investigations.

When once the efficiency expert strutted the halls of industry with clipboard and stopwatch, now the computer consultant motored into offices to declare a new world of calculated effort and higher productivity. These same enthusiasts for these new systems were conveniently blind to the lost productivity of hardware failures, network bottlenecking, and the dreaded blue screen of death. Everywhere I turned, by the time I left that employment, eyes were fixed on screens, hands clutched plastic mice, and printers shoveled whole volumes of text into that world. The transformation of work was well underway when the next concept in computing arrived to bring visual metaphors and iconography to the screen.

Having already established a solid beachhead of skills in desktop publishing using a keyboard-driven paradigm, I was most taken by my first exposure to the virtual desktop. It was love at first sight. I can admit that now. After decades of therapeutic struggle and countless millions of keystrokes, I can today admit that the appeal and sensibility of what I saw struck me immediately as the most innovative and appropriate redesign of the computing experience I could ever have hoped for.

Within weeks, new eye-hand coordination skills were established. Faster and more comprehensive style management was appropriated. Document management and duplication were simplified. A graphical environment supported and surrounded the text. The objectification of filing and storing, retrieval and transfer was the most natural of evolutions in this new working virtual space. The capability which sealed the relationship was the WYSIWYG display and accuracy of the layout and typefaces. It was at once the most complete writing environment anyone could have imagined for me and an implementation of a supporting structure to ensure my text was always handled in the clear light of day.

And, for all this, I traded in my subliminal relationship with green text on a black background. I no longer had to maintain a mental image of what the text would become. I could make choices, adjustments, and decisions, more accurately based on what was rendered on the screen. With black text on a white background I had moved from an abstraction of the process to a visualization of the process.

When I finally was able to commit personal funds to the acquisition of such a system, I was entering into a permanent and unrelenting relationship with an emerging technology, which was about to change the way everything is done, the way people relate to each other, and the way people would begin to adjust their perceptions of themselves.

Computers had moved from the power of the words to the power of the image. Nothing would ever be the same again.

• • •

Written using WriteRoom in full-screen mode on a MacBook Pro. This program is an interesting throwback to a time when typing was the most useful thing a person could do with a computer.

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Reader Comments (1)

Brian Ogilvie · November 1, 2011 - 17:01 EST #1
As a historian who works a lot with the publishing process, from the days before printing was invented through the 18th century, and as a user of computers from the days of the blinking white (then green) cursor to WYSIWYG systems, I found your reflections fascinating. It's really only in the last quarter century that any writer, except those who engraved their own handwriting like William Blake, could expect that their manuscript/typescript output would look like the published version. That little book by Robin Williams, "The Mac is not a Typewriter," summed up the shift.

And yet there's a return to products like WriteRoom, or Scrivener, that take a step back from WYSIWYG. For that matter, I think the best word processor ever produced for the Mac was Microsoft Word 4, because it combined a reasonable view of the *words* one wrote without the *page layout* elements (margins, etc.) that mar otherwise useful programs like Mellel or Pages.

My workflow now involves keeping a bibliography in Bookends, taking notes in DevonThink Pro Office, and drafting in Scrivener. For lectures, I go straight from Scrivener to PDF. For publications, when I've decided that the argument is good, I export to RTF or Word for submission, revision, and copyediting.

But even there, I know that what I submit will look very different from what appears in print. That's because publishing professionals will take it on from there. Usually the results please me; sometimes not. But in either case, what my WYSIWYG word processor produced is not at all like the finished product.

And I still remember moving from the typewriter, the white-out and correcting tape, and needing to literally cut and paste to rearrange material, to the possibility of rearranging vast swathes of text, or putting them in a holding tank if I wanted to try out my piece without them but keep the option of putting them back. That was the really liberating part of the whole business for me.

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