Saturday, May 12, 2007

"It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program."

There are times, in the dark of night, when the only solace is to turn to the wisest words Louis Menand ever wrote.

Like this week. The task seemed simple: to ready an essay for a symposium. I had only to add a note, finish some editing, fix some formatting. Formatting. You know where this is going.

In the end, 5% of the work was on substance. 95% on a task that would defeat even Hercules. The number of staff involved? I lost track. The number of hours? Incalculable. The precise task? Trying to insert page numbers on curiously unnumbered odd pages.

You may have guessed the labyrinth into which I had descended: the world of Microsoft Word. Here’s Menand, from an essay "The End Matter," in the The New Yorker (Oct. 6, 2003):

It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program. Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons, and incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means entering a treacherous wilderness of pop-ups posing alternatives of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. You often feel that you’re not ready to make a decision so unalterable; but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angry beep. You double-click. You triple-click. Beep beep beep beep beep. You
are being held for a fool by a chip.

When, in the old days, you hit the wrong key on your typewriter, you got one wrong character. Strike the wrong keys in Word and you are suddenly writing in Norwegian Bokmal (Bokmal?). And you have no idea how you got there; you can spend the rest of the night trying to get out. In the end, you stop the random clicking and dragging and pulling-down and have recourse to the solution of every computer moron: with a sob of relief, you press Ctrl/Alt/Del. (What do Control and Alt mean, by the way? Does anyone still know?) A message appears: "You will lose any unsaved information in all programs that are running." O.K.? Cancel? End task? End life? The whole reason for rebooting was that you didn’t have access to your information, so how can you save it? You can always pull the plug out of the wall. That usually ends your "session" (a term borrowed—no accident—from psychoanalysis).

And on our beloved computers themselves, Menand writes: "The notion that the personal computer has eliminated the bone-crushing inefficiency of the typewriter, and turned composing The End Matter into a drive in the word-processing park, belongs to the myth that all work on a computer is 'fun'—one of the Digital Age’s cruellest jokes." In spite of the advantages (no more white-out), "The End Matter remains an interminable twilight struggle. The potential for rage and heartbreak is even greater, in fact, for the very technology that is supposed to speed the task of information-processing is now your most insidious foe."
For the rest of an unforgettable essay, click here.