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DECEMBER 18, 1987 *alairommeirravillik S AFTERWORD The Soul of an Old Machine All the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb. Rivers, rivulets, fountains and waters flow, but never return to their joyful beginnings . . . As they widen their banks, they also fashion the sad urn of their burial. Filled are the bowels of the earth with pestilential dust once flesh and bone, once animate bodies of men who sat upon thrones, decided cases, presided in council, commanded armies, conquered provinces, possessed treasure, destroyed temples .. . exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power .. . Nothing recalls them but the written page. Nezahualcoyotl King of Texcoco, 1431-1472 CIVILIZATION, you will recall, began with writing. Here in the West it was decided to identify civilization with one of its other essential components, the city, thus civis. In China, and I have it from a good source, the concept of civilization was linguistically related to the idea of the written word, the term for civilization itself was represented ideographically by combining the figures man-letters. What a nice concept. Ever since the first crude reed stylus was pressed into the alluvial clay of Mesopotamia, the writer has been immediately involved; in a sense the writer was the process as she conceived a word or string of words and brought two mediums together to create a more or less permanent record. But how very seductive is modern technology, the technology of the microchip when applied to the process of writing. \(Already the observant reader is beginning to suspect yet another cranky polemic from the left concerning the marriage of convenience interview with Harriet Doerr, the septuagenarian author of a very good first novel, Stones for Ibarra. Asked if she worked on a word processor, Doerr said, as I remember, “Oh, dear, no.” Then went on to explain that she could not imagine her small words and sentences appearing in those odd green letters on a gray screen. What a brave woman. At 76, writing must be even more a race against time than it is for those of us roughly half that age. Yet she writes, she doesn’t process words. But the technology of the microchip has, of course, arrived at the Observer. Actually, it arrived about three years before I landed here. And, as I best remember, it arrived with a whimper, not a bang. One day, it seems, it was just here. And what it brought was expediency. Typesetting is now done in the office with greater and more prolonged editorial control. Stories are called up on the screen for corrections or embellishments as writers call in or editors decide to delete or add. And copy is transmitted, on the eve of our printer’s deadline, by telephone. Of course, we have retrofitted our language to accommodate this new technology; now and again we openly talk of paper galleys or hard copy. But it seems a small price to pay, this corruption of our language, for all of this expediency. In a brilliant essay that appeared in the March 1984 issue of Harper’s, Frederick Turner describes the process by which a modern integrated circuit is created: A wafer of silicon is doped with impurities, exposed to light that is shone through a template to form a pattern of shadows, treated with new impurities that differentiate between the irradiated and unexposed areas, etched by a bath of corrosives, blanketed with a new surface of silicon, exposed to another pattern of light, and so on, until a marvelously complex three-dimensional system of switches, gates, resistors and connections has been laid down. This system may be destined to become part of a computer that will in turn help design new integrated circuits. The technical term for this process is “photographic.” An integrated circuit is essentially a very complex silicon photograph. Turner, who from this beginning proceeds into an essay on modernism, goes on to describe the silicon chip as something far more than a photograph. For a photograph, he observes, is significant only as a record. But a silicon photograph “doesn’t merely represent something, it does what it is a photograph of. In a sense, it is a miraculous picture, like that of Our Lady of Guadalupe: it not only depicts but does; it is not a representation, but reality.” Which is all very good. Until, that is, like the Lady of Guadalupe has done on occasion, one of these miraculous pictures fails to deliver. AS HAPPENED HERE on one unusually warm December morning when we called up our copy only to discover that it wasn’t there. Or, at least, it wasn’t there in the same form that it had been left four hours earlier at 2 a.m. Some 800 words of the 2,000-word editorial that prefaces this issue were simply gone. Other articles, we soon discovered, were also gone, or oddly disjointed. Some were presented vertically, others interspersed with odd words like Botvoid which appeared with disturbing frequency throughout our copy. Weird hybrid stories developed, lines from a story about toxic waste spilled into our Washington column and long stories were scrambled and broken into USA Today-length news items. Odd glyphs and symbols simply appeared as we stood staring at the dull gray screen. Frenetically, we worked the cursor, deleting, moving, entering, until by the end of the day we accepted that all was lost. Not even our resident computer By Louis Dubose