I began using Microsoft Word as soon as the first version was released around 1985. After some initial hassles I found it to be a better tool than MacWrite, which was its only competition at the time. I wrote a lot of stuff in early versions of Word, storing it all on floppies, and transferred the contents of all my floppies to my first hard drive, which I acquired around 1987. As new versions of Word came out I faithfully upgraded, reasoning that as a writer it made sense for me to spend a certain amount of money on tools.

Sometime in the mid-1980's I attempted to open one of my old, circa-1985 Word documents using the version of Word then current: 6.0 It didn't work. Word 6.0 did not recognize a document created by an earlier version of itself. By opening it as a text file, I was able to recover the sequences of letters that made up the text of the document. My words were still there. But the formatting had been run through a log chipper--the words I'd written were interrupted by spates of empty rectangular boxes and gibberish.

Now, in the context of a business (the chief market for Word) this sort of thing is only an annoyance--one of the routine hassles that go along with using computers. It's easy to buy little file converter programs that will take care of this problem. But if you are a writer whose career is words, whose professional identity is a corpus of written documents, this kind of thing is extremely disquieting. There are very few fixed assumptions in my line of work, but one of them is that once you have written a word, it is written, and cannot be unwritten. The ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets--he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But word-processing software--particularly the sort that employs special, complex file formats--has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months' or years' literary output can cease to exist.

Now this was technically a fault in the application (Word 6.0 for the Macintosh) not the operating system (MacOS 7 point something) and so the initial target of my annoyance was the people who were responsible for Word. But. On the other hand, I could have chosen the "save as text" option in Word and saved all of my documents as simple telegrams, and this problem would not have arisen. Instead I had allowed myself to be seduced by all of those flashy formatting options that hadn't even existed until GUIs had come along to make them practicable. I had gotten into the habit of using them to make my documents look pretty (perhaps prettier than they deserved to look; all of the old documents on those floppies turned out to be more or less crap). Now I was paying the price for that self-indulgence. Technology had moved on and found ways to make my documents look even prettier, and the consequence of it was that all old ugly documents had ceased to exist.

It was--if you'll pardon me for a moment's strange little fantasy--as if I'd gone to stay at some resort, some exquisitely designed and art-directed hotel, placing myself in the hands of past masters of the Sensorial Interface, and had sat down in my room and written a story in ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, and when I returned from dinner, discovered that the maid had taken my work away and left behind in its place a quill pen and a stack of fine parchment--explaining that the room looked ever so much finer this way, and it was all part of a routine upgrade. But written on these sheets of paper, in flawless penmanship, were long sequences of words chosen at random from the dictionary. Appalling, sure, but I couldn't really lodge a complaint with the management, because by staying at this resort I had given my consent to it. I had surrendered my Morlock credentials and become an Eloi.

In The Beginning Was The Command Line
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