Tuesday, July 14, 2015

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project #13

 Q. How have the computer, cell phone and other electronic devices changed how you read, write and study?
Note to librarians: We are still a very long way from leaving the technology of the codex behind. I read books about computers. I read ebooks in apps on my computer about books. It's not unusual.

None of my sixth grade friends would have been surprised to find me in my late twenties hanging around an IBM 360. Once I had gotten past my fifth grade plan to grow up to be a forensic pathologist (I was way ahead of the CSI effect), my next career goal had been Computer Scientist. Since my family left Denver before I got to eighth grade, none of my old friends knew that my ambitions had run hard up against higher math right around the time that I had become obsessed with poetry. (Had always read it, had written some in fourth grade, but had not yet seen that this was something I could be.) The surprise would have been that at the end of my time with Mr. 360, what I would walk away with on a reel of tape would be a dissertation in American literature.

I was of that last generation of men who didn't take typing instruction. We were mostly in shop classes and the girls were the ones who were, unbeknownst to themselves, picking up skills for the millennium. I was to become self-taught on the keyboard, pecking away in my GWU Campus Police dispatcher's booth, eventually becoming remarkably fast with my four fingered approach. I started out on manual typewriters, but soon hit the harder stuff.

That turned out to typify my fortunate contact with hardware. Just as I was able to learn typing on the creaky old manual available to me at the beginning of my academic life, then move on to an electric as I advanced to grad school, when I moved out of the campus police office and over to the Registrar's my early efforts at programming were registered on punch cards. (At some point after 7th grade I had made the discovery that logic and syntax, at which I was quite good, were more important to programming than being adept at higher math. I'd gotten much better at math in College, but still . . .) In the few years of my time in that job, GWU moved from the card reader to "dumb" terminals that, via the wonders of those rubber cupped, squealing modems, allowed us to send code across the street to the computer lab. No more carrying big boxes of punch cards back and forth to the computer center.

Conveniently enough, I was able to buy one of these used with about $50 from my skimpy pay check, and soon enough was coding from home. More convenient still, I took my coding skills to Continuing Ed just as I was starting the for real work on the dissertation, and had all the computers I could ever think of using right at my fingertips.

We were just getting to the microcomputer revolution, but GWU made a stop along the way, investing heavily in the Wang mini computer, which could be configured for local use in our offices, but also ran off a smaller computer center room in Rice Hall. In Continuing Ed we were teaching classes in the use of microcomputers, spread sheets, etc., but my own Literature work was still haunting the climate controlled confines of the IBM 360. I was using my newly acquired dumb terminal to type up the pages of my dissertation, which lived in the 360. 

The first drafts of my chapters were written out long hand on yellow legal pads, then transcribed using software known as Waterloo Script. This was an awkward solution, but I had free access to the mainframe by virtue of my employment. You had to manage a host of command lines, and you quickly learned to start each new sentence on a new line, for ease of later editing. But it was serviceable; I could print the thing out at the computer center, make corrections online, resubmit the job, get the new printout, etc. Eventually I was done; had a substantial tome to pick up at the job window. And when I graduated and departed from GWU, I took along with me a reel of tape containing all my hard work, which reel could not be read today without visiting a computer museum with legacy software. 


Waterloo SCRIPT

SCRIPT is a document composition processor developed by the Department of Computing Services. It is suitable for preparing documents that range in complexity from simple papers to large reference manuals and books. SCRIPT processes an "input file" consisting of text and "control words" (formatting commands), and produces an "output file" (formatted document) on disk, on a line printer, several laser printers, a CRT, or a typewriter terminal. While the long list of control words are powerful in their own right the greatest benefit for the user is derived from creating SCRIPT macro definitions for repetitive applications. SCRIPT is being used by many hundreds of computing installations, on a number of different IBM computers and operating systems.
A Text Editor: is used to create the input file and to enter the text and control words, and to make changes to previously-entered text and control words.
GML: An implementation of many different Generalized Markup Language layouts and a Starter Set layout to emulate the GML Tags described in the IBM GML User's Guide (SH20-9160)"

Somewhere along the line I had started typing shorter prose work, book reviews and correspondence, directly on the keyboard. (To this day, most of my poetry starts out in handwriting, but I long ago stopped handwriting any prose at all.) Sorry to report that somewhere in the Amiri Baraka archives (or is it the Rosmarie Waldrop collection?) there is a letter in which I inform my correspondent that I am now using word processing for most writing, something then still sufficiently novel as to warrant mention. But novel reading . . . That was still entirely a hard copy affair, despite the fact that I was occasionally applying various algorithms to digitized texts. (We already had The Brown Corpus and other such things, in some instances a gift from the great age of structuralism.) 

In those last years in D.C., with the help of a grant from the Commission on Arts and Humanities, I purchased my first actual home computer (and threw away the dumb terminal). I started with an Epson DOS machine, which in those days came with a gigantic codex of its own, a nearly impenetrable set of manuals. With that machine on my desk I felt a tremendous sense of liberation.  But what to do with all those perforation strips you had to tear of the pages fed to you by your dot matrix printer?

In the early nineties, following my wife's wise example, I purchased my first laptop, a Toshiba. Again, I felt that same sense of freedom. I could work anywhere, though I'd already begun to dislike people who made a show of reading their conference papers from laptops. (Seemed they could never get the things to scroll properly, let alone to sit straight on a podium.)  This was the heroic era of the Power Point. We had all slowly come to the conclusion that the Hyperlink was not going to change EVERYTHING after all, Hyper novels weren't doing all that well with readers, but we could sure throw up a screen and project an outline of the very talk we were giving. I held off till it became easier to embed video and audio files; now I use multimedia in class and in presentations all the time.

I was an early adopter of the PDA as well, though it always seemed a device that was coming up just short of what I wanted it to do. Who knew that all those functions would make the leap to the telephone? I still wasn't reading much from screens, but with these devices I had started writing poetry on screens, on the go. It was a wonderful combination of notebook and mystic writing pad.

But my real claim to being an early adopter came with the e-paper ebook. At some point in my San Jose State years, at a system wide conference of English faculty, I attended a presentation by a young man who called out all of us who were still using something so out of phase as WordPerfect. (I still use it -- It's a far superior product to Word, which is and was, as with so much Gatesiana, a badly back-engineered simulacrum that conquered the world.)  Then he waved his Digital Book device at us and advised that in the future nobody would read paper books anymore; that any of us who didn't use the thing in his hand was utterly hopeless.

Problems: The thing was bulky; it was hard to read from; there was virtually no literary content I could ever care about available for loading into it. (Reminded me of those racks of audio books in the stores, mostly diet manuals, self-help volumes, murder mysteries . . .)

A few years down the road I was browsing a Comp USA (remember those?) and saw the SONY Reader on display. It was thin. It used epaper, which seemed downright magical, like the Mystic Writing Pad, which must have been its inspiration. Most of all, there was a substantial and growing library of literature available for it, and you could load your own writings onto the platform. This was what I had been waiting for. I began reading novels and criticism from it. I loaded my own conference papers ont it and read from it on panels. (None of the difficulties attendant upon using a laptop at conferences with this little thing. I still remember Eugene Redmond coming up to me in Saint Louis to see what was that thing I was reading from.) When Amazon introduced the Kindle, I jumped to that at once. Even got the large format version, because now I could get my morning newspapers wirelessly delivered no matter where in the world I was, so long as I had internet access. When Apple introduced the iPad I left the Kindle behind. These new tablets had things called apps that could perform a plethora of functions.

But the steady evolution of the tablet finally brought me to what I had been wishing for all along; tablets that could entirely replace the laptop. Beginning with Windows 8, I could have a tablet that ran apps but could also run full programs. Not only could I read books and my own writings from its screen, I could use it for downloading and managing my concert files, creating presentations and running them, editing video and displaying it. It did pretty much anything a desktop or laptop (or indeed the old IBM 360) could accomplish, and I could slide it into my pocket.

These days I am the very model of ubiquitous computing. I still have the desktop at the house for the heavy lifting, but I'm screened in wherever I go. In my shoulder bag I carry a Windows 8.1 tablet. (Windows 10 anybody?) In my pocket I carry a Samsung Note, which is seldom used to phone anybody. (Seriously, have you ever gotten a phone call from me?) On my wrist is a Pebble Smart Watch, which displays emails, lets me know who is calling my phone, etc. I make notes for poems and other quick observations on the phone, which I can easily transmit to the other devices. I read my books on everything except the watch. (Don't have the patience for reading 140 characters at a time.)

There is one throwback, though. I've found that for teaching in the classroom, I still want the hard copy book -- Much easier to flip around in and find the passages I want to discuss -- No need to initiate a search to do that.

My complaints are all with the publishing industry itself, which seems bent upon destroying the potential market for ebooks. I've said before in blog entries and elsewhere, I should be able to buy any ebook at no more than half the price of a hardcopy. I should be able to read it on any device or platform that I choose. (DRM, as many have remarked, has never prevented piracy and only serves to annoy the industry's customers.) 

Ubiquitous computing also means that there is a powerful efficiency to my life of writing. Like every poet I've ever known, I've always had a small notebook with me no matter where I was. Still do! But between the tablets and the phone, I can also sit down anywhere I find myself and do the really serious work of writing and editing in a way that had never before been possible.

And yes, my most recent book of poetry, A BRAND NEW BEGGAR, is available in a Kindle edition.

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