Aside from a few minor vocabulary things, like the word microcomputer, the first chapter of WTWS could’ve been written yesterday. I remember thinking the same thing in around 2003, when I read WTWS the first time after stumbling upon it while working on my PhD prelim exam.
Paul’s opening to the chapter strikes me as still true: writing is a “natural” activity that is served, polluted, or even destroyed (or however one prefers to see it) by technology. Writing in a natural language, such as English, and writing in or with a computer language are treated as distinct and even oppositional activities, in both the popular imagination and in the lore of rhetoric and composition. Over twenty years beyond the publication of WTWS, the word processor reigns supreme as the de facto program for writing.
It’s worth noting that the publication of WTWS in 1993 occurred amidst two events that have shaped the state of writing and writing instruction with computers, on the one hand, and software development on the other:
- Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Word take over the world: WTWS came out at a pivotal moment in the history of personal computing: specifically the release of Microsoft Windows 3.1, released in April 1992, and Microsoft Word 6.0, released in 1993, which unified both the version numbers and the UI, to the extent possible, across MS-DOS (Word 6 would be the last version to run in DOS), Windows, and Mac OS. WTWS was itself released in 1993, just as Windows and Word 6.0 came on the scene to expand and, I believe, homogenize the experience of computer-based composition in ways that are today still firmly entrenched. “Windows” is mentioned just two places in WTWS, and only in passing.
- Linux, BSD Unix, and the free-/open-source software movements: Version .95 of the Linux kernel was released in March of 1992, which featured a port of the X Windows System, giving the Unix-derived Linux its first GUI environment. But more importantly, the free-software movement would also give birth to new languages as well as new tools and methods for doing the work of software development: tools that would have enriched the sense of community struggling to emerge from the disparate, relatively isolated people that Paul chronicles in WTWS.
Eric S. Raymond, chronicling the development of Unix hacker culture in The Cathedral and the Bazaar notes that
The MS-DOS world remained blissfully ignorant of [the development of BSD Unix and its culture of hackers]. Though those early microcomputer enthusiasts quickly expanded to constitute a population of DOS and Mac hackers orders of magnitude larger than that of the network nation culture, they never became self-aware…. The absence of a really pervasive network comparable to UUCP or Internet prevented them from becoming a network nation themselves.
In WTWS, word processors appear on pages 3-4 as just one type of software among many other, mostly hypertextual (what is now often called ‘multimodal’) composing approaches. And yet, the word processor document continues to dominate: if no longer in composition (which is debatable), than certainly elsewhere in the university, not to mention in the private sector.
Those of us who integrate software development to any significant degree in our instruction and research into writing can still see ourselves in Paul’s summary assessment of the people he interviewed for WTWS. He observed that their work, though largely “unnoticed by their institutions,” nevertheless “pointed to the one area where the field can actively shape the tools it uses, and thus shape the conception of writing implicit in those tools—the design of software” (6-7).
And that, to me, is why WTWS is both such an important and somehow tragic book. Its exigency, presented in part through a number of quotes from Andrea Lunsford’s 1991 address to the MLA, is undeniably mainstream. But because of the pace and brand of software adotopion in the mid-1990s, so many of WTWS's core arguments became very easy to ignore. Once every writing teacher and every student was equipped with a copy of Windows and Word, store-bought software became the mainstream, exactly and ironically as Lunsford at the time warned.
I have tried and mostly failed in my own work to argue by demonstration for what Paul put much more succinctly and directly: “software design should be as mainstream an activity for composition professionals as teaching a writing class, conducting a research study, or writing an article” (10). There is no equivocation in that statement. Software design should be a mainstream activity, on par with teaching and research.
I believe that that vision is still important, and even more readily realized than it would have been in the mid-1990s. The microcomputer (aka, the PC) was the development that served as the technological side of WTWS's exigency. In 2015, it is the mobile device, seen on a continuum of larger, more establisehd devices. Stitching together all of those contemporary devices and, more importantly, their users: the data application programming interface (API). Passing around word documents or PDFs is no longer a tenable way to write effectively (ever read a PDF on an iPhone? I don't recommend it).
The proliferation of devices will do to digital writing what the proliferation of screen sizes did to web design. Through the mid-2000s, screen resolutions were basically limited to three sizes: 640×480, 800×600, or 1024×768. Software like Dreamweaver could pretty ably design the web within that range, no programming skills required. But as screen resolutions fragmented, and wildly so in size as well as orientation, so too did network-access conditions and modes of input (clumsy fingertips rather than the pixel-perfect precision of the mouse pointer).
Programming, writing: those are the activities suited to meet the rhetorical challenges presented by a landscape that is, and indeed should be, teeming with all sorts of different devices and differently abled users. Programming, like writing, belongs to no one other than those who choose to engage it. By rereading WTWS still another time, I plan to listen closely again to the stories of the writer-programmer pioneers that Paul interviewed at the time, and think about how those stories transform and transpose to the present time.