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Word and Image: The Next Revolution

John Ruszkiewicz

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the writing lab, just when you have finally learned not to be intimidated by PCs and word processors, when you discovered that software programs could be as entertaining as the Newhart show, just when you finally persuaded your department to buy that letter-quality Diablo everyone has been dreaming about for years, it's back--Demon Innovation. And this time you're going to be asked not just to change your habits of composing and to memorize more horrendous key sequences, but to reconceptualize what writing itself is and can be. The next computer revolution is upon us, and its implications and reverberations may make word processing seem like the Russian Revolution of 1905, just a prelude of what was to come.

The change I am alluding to has actually been in the making for a number of years now: the shift from text-based to graphics-based word-processing software. If Ong (1977) is right in asserting that "all major advances of consciousness depend upon technological

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transformations and implementations of the word" (p. 42), then this technology that has already turned words into images on the computer screen ought radically to transform the way we envision texts, reawaken our text-bound eyes to modes of perception, and remind us that language is but one way we think and learn about our worlds. It is Ong again who observes that, "The mind does not enter into the alphabet or the printed book or the computer so much as the alphabet or the printed book or the computer enters the mind, producing new states of awareness there" (p. 47). By enhancing how we can write, new technologies may encourage us to perceive and think of the world in a manner that the blinded Gloucester in King Lear poignantly describes as "feelingly."

My intention, I hasten to add, is not to praise desktop publishing here, but to raise our sights somewhat beyond this powerful yet too local application of a new writing technology. If we are to appreciate all the implications of the enhanced imaging capability computers are giving us, we need to look beyond the immediate prospect of near-print-quality newsletters, resumes, and office forms. These are, no doubt, significant benefits, derived from the combination of image-oriented computers, page-setting software, and laser printers that constitutes the essential componentry of the so-called desktop printing revolution.

But the real excitement for writing teachers lies beyond the ability to look good on paper. It is in the way the new technology may enhance and stimulate the imagination, unloosing powers that may make even the term writing inadequate to describe what we will do in the future when we sit down to compose. It is important that we not reject this new technology because of imaginary threats to the centrality of the written word, but control and direct it so that it does not become another of those computer commodities Ohmann (1985) warns about "for which a mass market is being created in quite conventional ways" (p. 684). If we allow the graphics capabilities of these newer computers to serve only the business newsletter, the advertisement, the memo, the report, that's all they will do. It is our responsibility to consider and deploy broader, more innovative uses for the imaging of the word.

For many years, word processors and their companion printers were content to emulate the typed page. Most of us were grateful when we moved up from printers that churned out work just

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marginally more legible than cash register tapes to daisy-wheel machines that made everything we wrote look just as if it had been done on that standard of standards, the IBM Selectric. The product goal of the computer-generated text had been to emulate the best that a typewriter could produce: the buzzword was letter-quality.

But more recently, newer graphics-based computers and software have rejected that linear and essentially static, word-by-word, line-by-line emulation. The high resolution screens on which their texts were rendered became a palette or sketch sheet, inviting writers to create and merge images with text. A paper produced on these computers is drawn as much as written, designed as much as typed. Combined with either enhanced dot-matrix machines or the much more powerful (one would say inevitable) technology of laser printers, these computers are transforming words and images into hard copy at a level of quality unthinkable just a few years ago and at rapidly declining prices. The pages generated on a laser printer arrive complete and whole, like a screened print or elaborate pattern generated from millions of dots. The word we look at on the monitor and on the page is in every way an image, and that image can be varied with remarkable ease. The limitations of the daisy wheel printer now seem ludicrous in the face of a technology that can draw type sizes, styles, and fonts of any description, that can move text at will, that can highlight, box, redraw, resize, reshape, squeeze, mirror, rotate, and do almost anything we want, that can even bury within a manuscript routes to other texts and images, all of them linked and referenced in complex chains, until the notion of an archeology of a text takes on yet another meaning.

At the most mundane level, these tools give writers control of surface features they have not enjoyed since the dawn of printing. We are all aware that writing is integrally related to drawing, that the first writing, for example, was a simplification of drawings, that some writing remains highly pictorial. We also know the limits of such graphics and the revolution in speed and efficiency that the dawn of abstract alphabets achieved for writing. We have long been tom between the desire to see what we think and yet assert the essential abstract character of writing. Most of us, as former English majors, may still remember the almost Puritanical virtue

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we felt in enduring five- and six-hundred page novels (usually Russian) bereft of any surface entertainments but the words of the author. We defended the virtue of that abstraction as a training ground for the imagination, in much the same way some serious scholars of Shakespeare still argue that the dramas are hurt by performance, revealing their full richness only on the starkly printed page where they come to life in the theater of the mind. In an acute history of the impact of various technologies on the teaching of English, Suhor (1986) takes a defensibly conservative approach to the role of computers, explaining that, "the book [that is to say, the printed text] will remain the preferred medium for developing higher-order thinking abilities" (p. 107). This is a predictable bias. What he fails to foresee, l think, is that while the book may remain the vehicle for thought, the new technologies will reshape how that book is written.

The new technologies may force us to alter our view of writing as essentially a technique for conveying ideas abstractly to the mind or constructing them there. Of course, we have for a very long time lived in a world of images and a world where images combine comfortably with words. But never before have we faced the prospect of every writer having the ability to illustrate his or her thoughts almost effortlessly. What I hope we can imagine is the way that the technology can enable us to live in a more integrated world of imagination, to explore a dialectic where the literary image of metaphor is set in vibration against what Berthoff (1981) describes as "picturable analogies" (p. 7). I hope it will break us out of the damaging, solipsistic notion of communities ruled only by discourse, out of the narcissistic belief that ourselves and our worlds exist entirely within a web of words. I think we have forgotten, at least in our theory, how "language interacts with other perceptual media" (Arnheim, 1969, p. 242) and with other senses and the feelings and desires they generate.

The simple act of choosing the sizes and shapes of fonts on a screen alters the rhetoric of discourse in a way that we haven't ever had to consider (or teach) before. The tools and vocabulary of the printer and typesetter--points, kerning, gutter, portrait, landscape, justification--now fall into our own hands as we begin to control not only what our message will be, but how it will be delivered to readers. Suddenly an old rhetorical component takes on a new

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dimension. The appearance of a text, the contemporary equivalent of classical "delivery," may become an instructional consideration in writing courses as essential as audience and purpose. The shape of a text will become part of a writer's rhetoric, not an element imposed upon it by a typewriter or typesetter. And that shape will alter the content of the text: the way information is arranged, the way headings direct attention to material, the way information "feels."

In the past, the writer delivered the standard double-spaced manuscript to a publisher or editor and waited, often breathlessly, for publication. And anyone who has ever published will acknowledge that their stuff in print always has a different feel, character, and authority from their typed or handwritten text. We suddenly detect relationships in the printed text not visible in the typed one: our ideas are grouped more tightly and seem to take on a life of their own. Now, with almost a printhouse capability in the home or office, writers are less likely to be alienated from or surprised by their work. When what is seen on the screen is actually what can be printed and that printing of a high order, an almost physical bond between process and product is established; a sort of physicality is granted to thought. Ideas are drawn out of the mind, not in some artificial left-right brain dichotomy, but in a unified way, the hand and mind working together to bring forth images, with a little of Prospero's magic. The text is animate, without drudgery.

Just as significant, the new shape of texts will include more visual elements than have appeared on the page perhaps since the days of illuminated manuscripts. At first blush, the prospect is daunting, pages cluttered with writers illustrating every concept with an inept sketch or amateur diagram. Yet what the new technology provides are drawing programs that stimulate talent and libraries of ready-made images that will enable even less-than-gifted individuals to approximate the talents of skilled artisans. Moreover, we will see a gradual enhancement of visual sense, a greater appreciation for the ways mind and eye can work together to create understanding as we compose, the composition being something more than the parsing of linear phrases, but the drawing of ideas upon a palette capable of rendering any manner of shape and thought. Naturally, the work produced shall not all have the

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integrity of a William Morris design, a Lindisfarne Gospel illumination, a Blake engraving, but the impetus will be similar, a refusal-- made possible by technology--to confine the workings of our minds and the communications of our enterprises to verbal thinking only. Simply put, the new technology will empower people to do things with ideas that they couldn't do easily before.

Interestingly enough, we are restoring (or perhaps adding for the first time) an element of play to composing that I believe we shall find enormously invigorating. The computer no longer must present us with a empty screen as intimidating in its own way as a blank sheet of paper--and I don't think I have ever seen anything quite as intimidating as a green-on-black entry screen into WordStar on a Kaypro several years ago when I started word-processing. Instead the computer now offers us a canvas that will support our moods, our institutions, our feelings for words and images. Although one can, easily enough, imagine the product of composing remaining on the screen, I firmly believe in the genius and efficiency of the printed book. As Suhor suggests, the ultimate product of the illuminated word will continue to be the printed page, the bound volume--but it will be a different sort of book.

Not incidentally, in extending the enhanced word to the great masses of writers we are also enormously democratize the power of the printed word. The undeniable authority and prestige of typeset copy is now within the grasp of the smallest group, the least powerful institutions. I do not think this is a minor point, but one that may ultimately change our notions of publication, power, and prestige and significantly alter the nature of scholarly and political communication.

Indeed, what we are about to witness is the energy of the screen mated to the thoughtfulness of the book. Word processing has proven to be an enormously important technology, one that has enabled us, as Larsen (1986) correctly asserts, to rethink aspects of the composing process itself, just as earlier innovations as small as the fountain and ball-point pen made revision a viable alternative for the first time. Yet word-processing may finally prove to be chiefly a technological achievement, while the graphics revolution could lead to the reconceptualization of composing as a thinking act that enables more human beings to exercise more faculties, skill,

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and imagination than was ever possible before. Writing, I think, can never be the same.

John Ruszkiewicz teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, in Austin, Texas .


Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual Thinking. Berkeley: U of California.

Berthoff, A. ( 1981). The making of meaning. Montclair: Boyton/Cook.

Larsen, E. (1986). The effect of technology on the composing process. Rhetoric Society Quarterly 16, 43-58.

Ohmann, R. (1985). Literacy, technology, and monopoly capital. College English 47, 675-689.

Ong, W. J., S. J. (1977). Interfaces of the word. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

Suhor, C. (1986). Books and the new technologies. In M. Farmer (Ed.), Consensus and dissent: teaching English past, present, and future (pp. 95-110) Urbana: NCTE.