This post was originally published on Public Books.
From the earliest typewriters to Google Docs, writing devices have never been built for novelists. Instead, they are designed for office use, with creative writing of all sorts seen as a marginal-at-best side market. Determining what difference these repurposed office technologies make to writing is difficult, though, since no simple hypothesis about the effects of word processing on the final products of writing holds up to analysis. As Matthew Kirschenbaum puts it in his recent Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, “every impulse that I had to generalize about word processing—that it made books longer, that it made sentences shorter, that it made sentences longer, that it made authors more prolific—was seemingly countered by some equally compelling exemplar suggesting otherwise.” By tracing out the practices of writers and their relationships to the machines they use, Kirschenbaum foregrounds writing process rather than writing product.
One of the stars of Kirschenbaum’s literary history is the IBM MT/ST, short for “Magnetic Tape / Selectric Typewriter.” The MT/ST, released in 1964, was the first machine to be marketed as a word processor. This device is a remarkably useful lens for understanding the difference between word processing technologies and their predecessors. A somewhat ungainly object, the MT/ST had little in common with the word processing software I’m typing in now, or even with the dedicated word processing machines of the 1980s. For starters, it had no screen. Instead, its only means of both input and output was a modified Selectric typewriter. As with a standard Selectric, when the user typed on the MT/ST’s keyboard the machine produced a mark on a piece of paper by striking it with one face of a type ball.