6(3), August 1989, pages 129-131

Book Review
Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing

by Michael Heim (Yale University Press, 1987, 305 p., $19.95, ISBN 0-300-03835-6).

Reviewed by Richard W. Slatta

Anyone who uses a word-processing program has marveled at how the software changes and enhances one's writing. But how does computerized word processing alter the writing and thinking processes? What does it mean to the way we formulate, communicate, and define knowledge?

Michael Heim takes up these and other intriguing questions in a provocative inquiry into the philosophy of word processing. Heim's interpretation brings together philosophical problems with data drawn from microcomputer applications. He develops an interpretive framework for understanding how ubiquitous word-processing software has altered our paths to knowledge. Heim explains his argument clearly enough for non-philosophers to follow and enjoy.

Electric Language exhibits an appealing breadth and creativity of exposition. Heim begins with the Greece of Anaximander, Heraclitus, Plato, and Socrates. Within a few pages, he moves to the twentieth century and juxtaposes the transformation theories of Eric Havelock and Walter J. Ong with Martin Heidegger's existentialism and Ashton-Tate's FRAMEWORK lNTEGRATED SOFTWARE (pp. 87-88). Much like the flexible software tools that he describes, Heim ranges widely, almost hypertext fashion, through time and theories.

Heim frames his investigation in the following terms.

Once we grant the plausibility of the transformation theory--that basic intellectual changes accompany widespread innovation in symbol manipulation--and once we concur with existential analysis that human existence today is enframed in a fundamental way by technology, then our questioning presses to: How do we describe what actually changes in the transformation? What is it that we can examine consistently and fruitfully which will allow us to perceive the unique challenges to reality apprehensions that are raised by word processing? (pp. 97-98)

Although the book's central concern is a philosophical grounding for word processing, it also touches other attributes of a computerized society. The psychological interaction between what appears on-screen and the writer, what we might term the rhetoric of screen design, gets some attention. Heim discusses the significance of digital clocks, the advent of "technostress," and the distinctive qualities of online communication.

One particularly intriguing section is the explication of the "psychic framework" of the "idea processor" or outliner. Outliners are important, says Heim, because they bring technology to bear on the process of "conceptualization and connection of thoughts as they occur in composing them" (p. 140). Heim contrasts conventional writing by typewriter with this new technology. "Typing requires consecutive formulation and linear organization of thought. The computer, on the other hand, provides a nonlinear formulation along with the public typification of formed letters" (p. 158).

Given the richness of the ideas and images discussed, the conclusion, or rather lack thereof, is disappointing. Heim finds Marshall McLuhan's thinking of little use in analyzing the computer revolution (p. 58). But Heim fails to attempt a comprehensive counter explanation. He offers great breadth and insight into the changes wrought by electronic communications technology but does not posit a unified explanation.

Heim defends the lack of "summary and conclusion" by emphasizing the vastness of the technological changes that are engulfing us. Without doubt, he is right. He has taken on an immense topic and treated it with creative originality. Yet having traveled some 250 pages with him and his fascinating array of ideas, most readers will expect firmer conclusions. But that may be the domain of the futurist, not the philosopher.

Even with its slight disappointment at the end, Heim's philosophical journey through the realm of word processing is well worth taking. Additional studies are appearing, such as The Cognitive Connection. Thought and Language in Man and Machine, by Howard Levine and Howard Rheingold (Prentice-Hall, 1987, $19.95). It will take the efforts of many thinkers in many disciplines to unravel the mysteries of our new "electric language." Heim has given the inquiry a stimulating, readable beginning.