Mini Object Lesson: The Pleasure of the Text Editor

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the early days of microcomputers, killer apps like the spreadsheet and word processor drove adoption. They also changed the way we calculate and write. A few years later desktop publishing did the same for page layout.

Interfaces became graphical with the Mac, Windows, Amiga, and other systems, and so was born What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), the world's most incongruous acronym. Advances in on-screen graphics and printer output technologies made it possible for the version of a document on the monitor to look just like it would on paper.

This seemed like a good thing, too. Writing, after all, is about products rather than bits or words: books, pamphlets, reports, documents. In theory, WYSIWYG tools allow workers to focus on work rather than on the tools to produce that work.

But in practice, the tools become the stars of work. Word docs, PowerPoint decks, Excel sheets, and all the other bulls in china shops of the modern office, lumbering and fumbling about. When it comes to word processing, for example, all too often white-collar workers produce documents when all they really need is text. I receive many Microsoft Word documents attached to email messages that really have no business being documents at all; plain text in the body of the message would have been quite suitable.

The same goes for desktop app replacements like Google Docs, which is mostly just a bad implementation of Word in a browser. An invitation to view something on the web might seem convenient, but mostly it's just another excuse to use an unnecessary tool.

Traditionally, opposition to the overzealous use of productivity software has blamed the soulless culture of the corporate bureaucracy. The IT department that requires the use of Word or Internet Explorer, or the boss who will only look at a PowerPoint slide, or the general monotony of generating documents as a cover for the fact that the work those documents conduct doesn’t really matter.

Even those who would shun such tools with deliberateness and vitriol can’t ever really overcome them. Some years ago, I co-authored an entire 65,000-word book in a text editor. But at the end of the day, we still had to get the thing back into Word to finalize and submit.

Despite the ultimate victory of the word processor, the word has an unlikely ally in opposing those awkward tools: all the networked services and social networks that provide text boxes for ordinary folk to type into. Facebook updates, Twitter posts, comments under articles on media websites like this one: the simple, rudimentary, and essentially terrible writing tools in which most of us do the majority of our writing these days.

True, they are still contained within the ungainly, draconian chrome of the websites and apps that have taken over the prior tyranny of Microsoft Office. But nevertheless and improbably, the text editor has won out over the word processor: Text, free from layout, one word after the next as your fingers tap keys or screens.

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