It looks like you're writing a letter

07.03.2001

Microsoft Word

A recent film has one character blown to death at their keyboard. Underneath the desk they sit at is a bomb controlled by a keystroke counter. When the number of taps on the keyboard drops below a certain number, off goes the explosive. A real innovation in the switching system the bomb uses is that it is tied into the grammar check in Microsoft Word. The victim is unable to keep tapping away at the same key until help arrives. They have to keep composing grammatically correct sentences, line after line, through the cramp in their fingers. Needless to say, knowing this is both a sure wellspring of verbiage and a scriptwriter's shortcut to bathos, they compose a last letter to their loved ones. Eventually though, the agrammaticality of their emotions or of tiredness sprawls out of even these second guessed finger-tips and as a green line appears under a patiently panicked phrase, up they go.

This lot is being written with every toolbar visible, every feature enabled. One third of the screen, a large one, is taken up with grey toolbars pocked with icons. There is a constant clatter of audio feedback clicking, shuffling and chiming as the user's attention is pulled away from putting together a piece of writing into the manufacture of the text as a perfectly primped document. As you read, understand that these words are to appear against a background fill effect of white, grey-veined marble.

Microsoft Word is part of a larger package, Office which contains Excel, a financial spreadsheet program; Powerpoint, the digitised answer to the glory of the Over Head Projector; an array of bits and bobs including low-level code generators for Visual Basic and HTML2471 and some stunning clip art.

If, contra McLuhan, "A society is defined by its amalgamates, not by its tools"2472 then Office is an attempt to pre-empt this amalgamation by not only providing what rationalist programmers are content to describe merely as tools but also the paths between them, how they intermix, and the boundaries and correlations between their different functions, the objects they work on and the users that they amalgamate with.

All word processing programs exist at the threshold between the public world of the document and those of the user. These worlds may be subject to non-disclosure agreements; readying for publication; hype into new domains of intensity or dumbness; subject to technical codes of practice or house style; meeting or skirting round deadlines; weedling or speeding... How does Word meet, detour or expand these drives, norms and codes in writing?

Like much else, word processing has escaped from its original centralised, hierarchically positioned place within large organisations and single-purpose computers2473. It has also stayed put, shifting things about in the workplace, but also being trained there. And what it changes into at work effects how it is used, what it allows to be done, outside of work. The work of literary writing and the task of data-entry share the same conceptual and performative environment, as do the journalist and the HTML coder. The history of literacy is full of instances of technologies of writing taking themselves without consent from structures aimed at containing them - something which at the same time as it opens things up instantiates new norms and demands, from reading the bible to the requirement to complete tax statements. At each new threshold, heresy and fraud are opened up as possibilities, but at the same time are forced to operate on one more terrain at once.

Microsoft Office slots into the all-you'll-ever-need-for-the-home-office shelf in the software supermarket with all the placing that only those who own the store can manage. There's bound to be some scintillating demographics on exactly who uses the software and how tucked into the data-storage of some go-gotten demi-god somewhere on a Seattle corridor laying out exactly how Microsoft project patterns of work and use for their software, what tools will be needed to meet the challenges of a new era of productivity. But these aren't the clues we have to go on. What we do have in order to discover what kind of user is being imagined and put into place is the mountain of material the program presents. Since its early versions Word has swollen like a drowned and drifting cow. The menu bar has stretched to twelve items, the number of toolbars to eighteen. Don a white coat, open a calculator, multiply these two figures, then cube them and you get a scientifical idea of the extent of the domain which Word now covers.

According to James Gleick, features are included in Word with, "Little more purpose than to persuade the trade press to add one more 'Yes' to the feature-comparison charts that always accompany word-processor roundups"2474. In Taylorist design, the majority of Computer Human Interface as practised today, the user or worker or soldier appears only as a subsystem whose efficiency and therefore profitability can be increased by better designed tools. Whilst, according to John Hewitt, 'The disappearance of the worker has, in fact, been an aspect of most design theory since Morris"2475 this means contemporarily is that the disappearance of the worker is best achieved by the direct subsumption of all their potentiality within the apparatus of work.

The volume of features in Word is often represented as a disastrous excess, but this is excess fitted up as standard. What draws the user to the site of their own special disappearance is possibly even the contrary drive for the disappearance of work in autonomous behaviour as an ideal of free work:

"We can call someone autonomous when s/he conceives and carries out a personal project whose goals s/he has invented and whose criteria for success are not socially predetermined."2476

Gorz's definition of autonomous labour provides a useable rule of thumb, a workable trope for autonomy which is conflictual and negotiated rather than its more fantastically 'independent' variant. As a device it allows us to understand that a program such as Word doesn't deny autonomous work or the desire for it, but parasites it, corrals and rides it at the same time as entering into an arrangement of simultaneous recomposition of scope.

The surplus feature mountain warehoused in your computer is stored against the possibility of your ever needing it, against the possibility of the user's self expanding, or changing purpose or data-type. Whilst the ways which Word is actually used by any one individual or work practice may only be very narrow sections of its entire capability, like all software of its kind there is a dramatic break with that area of the Taylorist model of work which involves strict division of labour in the actual form of the equipment (this is usually achieved by system management software and by work practices). In comparison to the disappearable production lined individual, here the worker is expected to encompass and internalise knowledge of the entire application which replaces it and to be able to roam about, freely choosing their tools and their job. The quandary for the self which Foucault presents:

"How does one govern oneself by performing actions in which one is oneself the object of those actions, the domain in which they are applied, the instrument to which they have recourse and the subject which acts"2477 is at once doubled for the self whose actions, object, domain and instrument are amalgamated with a material-semiotic sensorium - a program - whose entanglements and interrelations are so multifarious. (For at least one accredited philosopher founding an enquiry into word processing the problem is far worse: "The anxiety of loosing a hold on professional integrity and sinking into popular culture must be restrained for the sake of thinking out a phenomenon we are now living through and in which we are participating."2478)

The feature mountain refutes theories of hardware determination of software at the same time as it makes a full victimising incorporation of the user into the application laughably implausible. It is again as an amalgamate - a subset of those both within and connected to the 'universal machine' - that it deserves to be worked over. The threshold that it composes also incorporate, as well as the obvious economic factors, compositional articulations produced by: hardware capabilities and innovation; developments in programming languages and technique - as well as those of the structuring and organisation of such work; the propensity of digital technologies to have arranged some form of connection to the networks. All of these factors of course intermesh along with the various corporate instruments used to determine and decide upon their various and relative importance.

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