The Work of Writing in the Age of Technological Reproducibility

The tools for writing are constantly evolving. They may seem straightforward to us — what could be more banal than a typewriter, or pen and paper. But that banal image comes only after a long period of consolidation — typewriter was a new tool introduced in 1870s.

Hansen-Malling writing ball, whose first user was Frederich Nietzsche
Typewriter Nightmare

The Importance of Being Messy

The advent of computer initially only duplicated what the typewriter can do and just made it more flexible — you can easily maintain the immaculate look of your work no matter how many times you have gone back to change the words. We normally think of this as an advantage , but it also eliminates many important ways we can transfer our thinking into words.

Look at the WORK! Left: Charles Dicken, Great Expectations; Right: Janacek, Jenufa
Can you type up something like this?

Writing in the Internet Age

Fast-forward to recent decades and another big change since the invention of typewriter is coming. The rise of Internet finally pushed writers into a self-publishing heaven where you can publish anything you want, censor free, but you are also responsible for everything from content, layout, graphics, typography, navigation, marketing and distribution.

Is Minimalist Writing the Answer?

One idea that has achieved immense popularity in recent years is that of “minimalistic” writing tools. The list of apps that claim to offer a “distract-free” writing experience keeps changing, so I won’t give any name here. But the basic idea is simple: display nothing but the text you are currently typing on, all with beautiful typography.

Augmenting Human Intellect

What should serve as a starting point is mistaken as the destination. Eliminate distractions is a good thing to do, but what about things that can actually help the aspiring writer? Can computer technology actually help the work of writing? Or it is best just to give them a blank sheet of paper and hope for the best?

A Case Study: Scrivener

It might be helpful, at this point, to look at an example, Scrivener, which has made some nice gestures toward being a sophisticated technological writing aid. It is primarily marketed in certain areas such as movie script or novel. But it has been used for many other long form writing. I used the tool a few years ago for doctoral dissertation writing and here are some of my thoughts on how this software actually helped.

scrivenings mode

Towards Visualization in Writing

Caveat: the following is pure speculation, in the line of Engelbart’s “wild” speculation about an architect’s work. It may sound like science fiction, just as Engelbart’s description of a regular CAD software would seem to a 1960s audience.

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