Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, is working on a new book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The book will explore how the adoption of word processing technology changed the way that writers practiced their craft, a project that reflects a growing scholarly interest in how writing tools affect literary output. Kirschenbaum recently gave a talk at the New York Public Library based on the book’s first chapter, which you can listen to here.
We’re excited to be publishing the book sometime in the next couple of years, and equally excited to watch it take shape along the way. And you can help! On his website, Kirschenbaum has put out a call for assistance:
I want to know who the early adopters were, and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both “highbrow” and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction. I am also following the story through to the present day: many writers now have platforms on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Some of my best information so far has come from word of mouth. That’s where I need your help. I would be very interested in hearing from:
- authors who were early adopters of computing and word prcocessing and/or social media (also authors who made a deliberate decision not to switch to a computer);
- editors, publishers, agents, and others in the business with relevant insights to contribute;
- technologists who worked on early word processing programs;
- anyone with relevant primary source materials to loan, share, or contribute; anyone who knows of interesting fictional renditions of computers and word processing (for example, King’s short story “Word Processor of the Gods”).
Kirschenbaum, pictured at right, has also created a new Tumblr blog with which to document and share some of the coverage of and developments with the project. And, after Jennifer Schuessler wrote of Kirschenbaum and Track Changes in the New York Times late last month, there’s certainly been a spike in activity, with additional coverage in the Guardian and at the Atlantic Wire, and a follow-up piece by Schuessler. One notable response came from Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer and journalist who for years contributed to Byte magazine. On his own site, Pournelle took issue with many of Kirschenbaum’s statements as reported by the Times. Kirschenbaum tweeted Pournelle’s piece, noting that Pournelle was “definitely high” on his list of people to talk to, and has since reported via Tumblr that Pournelle was “much nicer on the phone” than in his written critique.
It’s interesting to see how Kirschenbaum’s research on the effects of one technological innovation—word processing—is being so shaped by his own embrace of another, social networking. Until recently, it wasn’t often that we got to watch research unfold so publicly, but Kirschenbaum’s style of transparent, internet-based process documentation is becoming more and more common, especially among practitioners of the digital humanities. Follow along for yourself via Kirschenbaum’s Tumblr or twitter, or just keeps tabs on the #trackchanges hashtag. You could also just sit back and wait for the book, but, really, where’s the change in that?