Case Study #4 | "It Is Known": George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media

From #MALcasestudies series author Lori Emerson: This week’s post features Matthew Kirschenbaum, a scholar whose work in digital forensics and media archaeology as well as his role in running the collection of vintage computers at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has long been a model for my own work. Kirschenbaum’s post below on George R.R. Martin and WordStar not only echoes perhaps even more pointedly my assertions in previous posts about how narratives of technological progress are largely works of fiction; but it is also a powerful testament to how the media archaeology approach is relevant far beyond the confines of academia and media studies.

This is the fourth post in the #MALcasestudies weekly blog series. Catch previous posts #1, #2, and #3.

WordStar runs on a Kaypro 4 at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
Author George R. R. Martin uses WordStar to write his Game of Thrones novels.

University of Maryland

Following fast upon a week of digital archaeology extravaganzas that included the Atari E.T. dig in New Mexico, the recovery of Andy Warhol’s computer art from his early Amiga floppies, and even NASA’s restoration of high-resolution lunar imagery consigned to backup tapes since 1966, came the news: George R. R. Martin writes the Game of Thrones novels on a DOS-based machine disconnected from the Internet and lovingly maintained solely to run . . . WordStar. In conversation with Conan O’Brien, Martin dubbed this his “secret weapon” and suggested the lack of distraction (and isolation from the threat of computer viruses, which he apparently regards as more rapacious than any dragon’s fire) accounts for his long-running productivity.

And thus, as they say, “It is known.” But the truth is this was no particular revelation, as Martin’s devotion to WordStar had been documented elsewhere before. In fact it still enjoys something of a cult following among science fiction and fantasy authors, including also the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Robert J. Sawyer. The brainchild of programmer Rob Barnaby and MicroPro’s Seymour Rubinstein, for the first half of the 1980s WordStar dominated the home computer market before losing out to WordPerfect, itself to be eclipsed by Microsoft Word. Originally a CP/M application that was later ported to DOS, WordStar was the software of choice for owners of the early “luggables” like the Kaypro computer and the Osborne 1. Writers who cut their teeth on it include names as diverse as Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, William F. Buckley, and Anne Rice (who also equipped her vampire Lestat with the software when it came time for him to write his own eldritch memoirs).

But the viral media reaction to Martin’s remarks was fascinating as a moment of media archaeology writ large. Many commenters immediately if indulgently branded him a “Luddite” (itself a term whose meaning we have abused, as Steven E. Jones has shown), while others opined it was no wonder it was taking him so long to finish the whole Song of Fire and Ice saga (or less charitably, no wonder that it all seemed so interminable). But WordStar is no toy or half-baked bit of code: on the contrary, it was a triumph of both software engineering and what we would nowadays call user-centered design. With features ranging from automatic word-wrap and full margin justification to mail merge and context-sensitive help, it was justifiably advertised as early as 1978 as a What You See Is What You Get word processor, a marketing claim that would be echoed by Microsoft when Word was launched in 1983. WordStar’s real virtues, though, are not captured by its feature list alone. As Ralph Ellison scholar Adam Bradley observes in his work on Ellison’s use of the program, “WordStar’s interface is modelled on the longhand method of composition rather than on the typewriter.” Bradley points to a detailed exposition from the aforementioned Sawyer, but the upshot is that users need never lift hands from keyboard to navigate their document, thus permitting a freedom and facility of movement that is an order of magnitude more efficient than the pointing and clicking and scrolling and dragging we associate with running a mouse around a GUI. (You may counter that Word and other applications allow for keyboard commands too, but the difference remains that WordStar was designed from the ground up with this model of interaction in mind—the power user like Martin who has internalized the keyboard commands to the point that navigating and editing the document was as seamless and second nature as picking up a pen to mark any part of the page.)

The Osborne 1, which lives at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s
Media Archaeology Lab, also runs WordStar.

Technological time is a curious thing: after all, WordStar runs no less efficiently and behaves no differently in 2014 than it did in 1983, yet we have been conditioned to assume that the intervening years must somehow entail a corresponding dilution of performance and experience. Jonathan Sterne documents this phenomenon when he notes the radically compressed chronology of a “new” computer’s transition to the purgatory of the merely “useful” thence to the threshold of obsolescence, beyond which it is a candidate for replacement. Computers, he argues, are thus “new” media only with respect to themselves: the next generation of must-have hardware upgrades and feature bloat is what preserves the aura of novelty the industry demands for its self-perpetuation. You’re running WordStar in 2014? You must be a Luddite, or at the very least a curmudgeonly author of high fantasy whose success allows you to indulge your eccentricities! Such is the extent to which what Lori Emerson deftly terms reading writing interfaces have been commodified, and that very commodification assimilated as normative—a trajectory her book documents in the most compelling terms.

So to run WordStar in 2014 you’d have to be a Luddite or an eccentric . . . or else just a visitor to the Internet Archive. Using an emulator known as JSMESS, the Historical Software Collection there allows any user to run WordStar in their browser. You can create your own file (with old-school 8 x 3 naming convention of course) and type and edit to your heart’s content (but not as of now save your work). While the emulation is a remarkable resource, particularly for the ease with which it is accessed through basic browser technology, it perhaps doesn’t fully capture the experience of a Michael Chabon or an Anne Rice (or Lestat) running the software on one of the systems for which it was originally designed. This, though, is the wonder of places like Emerson’s Media Archaeology Lab or our own vintage computer collections at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Both venues maintain working Osbornes and Kaypros (among many other systems) capable of summoning back the intangibles of those early interactions: the grinding of the drive and the swapping of the disks, the monochrome letters emblazoned on an inconceivably small screen, even the tactile resistances of the keyboards—all of these constituting the raw materiality of computation, rendering these putatively vanished technologies once again “radically present” in the words of Wolfgang Ernst. Or as one of Emerson’s students writes, “As a user of Microsoft Word in 2014, when using WordStar, I was astounded by the constant presence of the program, which never reaches the degree of seamlessness to which I am accustomed. I was constantly aware of the black space and the various shades of green that constituted my digital writing.”

Writers’ responses to writing technologies have always been equal parts intimate and uncompromising, and word processing is no different in this regard. Media archaeology in particular teaches us that the profound sense of disconnect or dissonance articulated by the student above is no more or less normative than WordStar’s continuing appeal is to George R. R. Martin. Both WordStar and Microsoft Word are material technologies against which we manufacture an ongoing array of haptic, affective, and cognitive engagements. My own work on my book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (manuscript to be delivered to my publisher later this year) reconstructs and recovers the histories of such engagements with respect to a number of authors and their computers—in the context of which, George R. R. Martin’s now widely known affinity for WordStar is merely one good story among many.

More posts in the #MALcasestudies series:
Case Study 1: Introducing the Media Archaeology Lab.
Case Study 2: The Altair 8800b from 1976.
Case Study 3: The Vectrex gaming console from 1982.

One thought on “Case Study #4 | "It Is Known": George R. R. Martin, WordStar, and Media Archaeology in the Media

  1. Great piece. WordStar was a terrific program. I used WordStar 3.0 quite extensively back in 1982-3 or so on a Xerox 820 CP/M machine with awesome 8\” floppies. At the time, it seemed like magic. I liked how you could configure the on-screen help menus in WordStar. For beginners, it could display dozens of commands (but effectively cutting down your screen real estate for typing). Once you learned the commands (which did take some time), you could use a much smaller on-screen menu, leaving yourself more space to see your document. We had it hooked up to two printers — one was the ubiquitous Epson dot matrix. The other a very nice Xerox Diablo \”letter quality\” printer. (I loved how \”letter quality\” became a generic description for a printer). I remember printing out documents and showing them to people — they were amazed that a computer created them.

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