Writing on the computer

I recently had to buy a new laptop. The old one had inadequate memory, and not only had its battery died, but even its clock battery had died. (I had to reset the time every time I powered it up.) In the process, I realized just how complicated writing has become.

When I was a college student, I had three tools: my books, the college library, and my typewriter. I composed while typing. Hence I had to use corrasable paper, which allowed you to erase what you had typed and type over again, without being as obvious as white-out.

Now, just to write The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, I still have my books and a nearby university library. I’ve chucked the typewriter and corrasable paper for a laptop and word processing software. But that’s not all I need anymore, thanks to the laptop. I need my old files of drafts and ideas, browser bookmarks of useful sites for facts and pictures, the books and images I’ve downloaded, the articles I’ve pulled from scholarly databases, all my accounts and passwords, and all of the various software programs (not to forget the high-speed Internet connection and electrical outlet) to support all this.

It’s not obvious how complex all this is until you have to transfer it from one computer to another, particularly when that involves upgrading across a few generations of software. For example, compared to typewriters and corrasble paper, word processing makes my writing so much easier. However, the new version of my word processing software uses new file formats and has significantly restructured the user interface. I’m going to have to port my files, convert the more important ones, straighten out problems created by the conversion, and spend some time figuring out the important differences in the new software.

Multiply that example by 10, and toss in a few unexpected twists (such as the boot block becoming corrupted on the new laptop, forcing me to reinstall the factory software image), and the amount of work needed just to continue what I was already doing is daunting. Yet I can’t live and write without it. It’s a richer environment, and a easier one to use, once I get the hang of it.

My story, The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge (which you can read here as it goes up a chapter a week), is a fantasy about magic, but the computer really is magical. Imagine a dutiful amanuensis who instantly takes down and formats everything you write, will provide you with endless related information if you but ask, and will print out a book in minutes. True, sometimes it crashes, and you’d better back up your files, but, hey, medieval scribes would get drunk and spill wine on the parchment and have to start over. And they were a lot slower and more error-prone. All this from a device that originally took up a whole room just to do calculations!

ENIAC 1946 (U.S. Army photo.)


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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